Cocoa Trees in an African Plantation

Topics: Plants

Human use of the cocoa bean can be traced back to around 600 BC where it was used as part of an ingredient in a hot, liquid beverage consumed by the Mayans in Central America. Around 2 millennia later, in 1491 AD, Christopher Columbus introduced cocoa into Spain. Columbus had discovered these seemingly dull and un-important beans during his expeditions to the Americas where at this time cocoa was being drunk by the Aztecs, in much the same way as it had been by the Mayans.

There was one difference though, ‘chocolatl’ (meaning ‘warm liquid’) was a regal drink and very few people, mainly only the Emperor, ever had the chance to taste it; let alone the actual people who cultivated the bean. This situation appears to have remained the same for over 500 years, but just broadened to an international scale. In terms of the chocolate industry we are very much a global microcosm of the Aztec society. In England the average person will spend $98 per year on chocolate.

7 years ago the European chocolate industry was valued at $18,463 billion.

Chocolate is a multinational industry and is sold everywhere in the world. However, chocolate has humble beginnings. Grown in many places from The Ivory Coast to Indonesia to Brazil, cocoa often starts its existence in poverty.

So, with an all year round growing season it takes an expert eye to recognise by appearance which fruits are ripe. When these pods are identified they are removed one way or another dependant of their location on the cocoa tree.

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Machetes are now used to open each pod; a worker who is proficient with a machete can open up to 500 pods per hour. 20 to 50 cream coloured beans can now be removed from the pods; the husks and membranes are discarded. A dried bean from an average pod weighs around 50g. Around 400 of these beans are needed to make a pound of chocolate.

This means that approximately 20kg of dried cocoa beans are needed to make 450g of chocolate (or one pound of chocolate). The beans are then usually piled into heaps in the sun and covered with leaves to ferment for 3 to 9 days, this removes the bitter taste from the cocoa. When the bean appears a rich brown colour they are ready to be dried. Drying varies from country to country depending on the weather they experience but the method tends to be simplistic and natural. When the beans are dry they are sacked (to the weight of anything from 55kg to 90kg) and stored in the shipping centres to await buyers.

Presuming the cocoa is going to a chocolate producer the beans are shipped to the manufacturer and stored very carefully. If the beans come into contact with strong odours they tend to absorb an off-flavour. The beans are thoroughly cleaned as a precaution and then weighed. To develop the beans chocolate taste they are roasted in large rotary cylinders for varying amounts of time at around 140 degrees Celsius. The beans are quickly cooled and have their shells removed by a winnowing machine that passes the beans along serrated cones that crack the thin shell. The product is the ‘nib’ which is about 53% cocoa butter.

The ‘nibs’ are now ground to create enough frictional heat in order to turn them into chocolate liquor, which is poured into moulds and allowed to solidify. Ingredients are added accordingly at this point depending on the desired chocolate end product. The mixture becomes dough like and is passed under rollers to make it into a thin paste ready for ‘conching’. Conching’s function is to develop the flavour of the chocolate by mechanical kneading for hours or even days, this is often replaced or supplemented by the emulsification of the mixture to break up sugar crystals resulting in a smoother chocolate.

When finished the chocolate is tempered with interval heating, then cooled and then reheated so it can be cast into the shape of the final product. The chocolate is packaged and then distributed. Two major chocolate manufacturers are Cadburys and Nestle, both of these companies have their names inserted into chocolate history; John Cadbury was the first person to produce solid eating chocolate through the development of fondant chocolate in 1842 and Henri Nestle created the first milk chocolate by adding milk in 1875. Both companies now dominate the chocolate industry internationally.

Chocolate manufacture is widespread and there are countless numbers of companies: Lindt, Toblerone, Mars and Aeschbach Chocolatier to name but a few. These companies are all multinational, their various branches (such as supply, manufacture, marketing and distribution) are located throughout the world. Certain individual aspects of the MNCs, however, tend to follow certain inclinations; suppliers of cocoa are always found in equatorial less economically developed countries (LEDCs) such as Ghana and Cameroon, factories of the chocolate MNCs are usually located in more economically developed countries (MEDCs) or the nation of origin, eg.

One of these plants is Theobroma cacao, seen in Figure 1, which is commonly known as a cocoa tree. This tree is native to Brazil yet it is now grown along the equator in many different countries. The conditions required for the cocoa tree are fairly demanding and the areas of cultivation lie only within 20 degrees latitude of the equator. Further still within this latitude a temperature range of 21-32 is required, rainfall is largely insignificant as long as the soil is capable of retaining moisture.

We have briefly analysed three cocoa producing countries, but what about chocolate producing countries? The United Kingdom is an MEDC, it is a major global producer of chocolate and also a main consumer. In the UK people have a comparatively high standard of living, the GNP per capita is $18,882 and a life expectancy of 77 years. The UK has been producing chocolate well over 100 years, Britain was the first country in the world to create and distribute solid eating chocolate and many modern chocolate MNCs, such as Mars, Cadburys and Nestle, have their headquarters or factories in the UK.

The UK produces around 545,095 metric tonnes of chocolate per year, the individual UK chocolate market having been valued at around 6 billion. As a nation the UK spends 3. 9 billion per annum on chocolate confectionary. These figures give us an insight as to just how much of an important role Britain plays in the chocolate industry. We are now familiar with the equatorial LEDC’s climatic conditions, which are (excepting Hawaii) the only environmental circumstances that support the cultivation of the cocoa tree. We also know about the level of chocolate consumption and production that currently exists globally.

So rationality would infer that these equatorial countries effectively dominating the cocoa market should be ‘rolling in it’. Yet we also know that these countries remain LEDCs, some stricken with poverty and disease. At this point reason intervenes and we must realise that somewhere someone or something is cheating these small-scale cocoa producers. Cocoa production is an unsophisticated, un-mechanised and primitive industry, it is labour- intensive so cacao plantation owners normally employ workers when they are harvesting.

In the equatorial LEDCs of study there is no minimum wage for workers; they are paid as little or as much as employers deem necessary, but there is also no minimum price for cocoa. Cocoa is a freely traded global commodity and its price is determined by the current supply and demand, previous attempts at establishing a minimum price for cocoa via the International Cocoa Agreements and the World Bank have failed and there were inter-governmental agreements to liberalise the market. This means that like the wages of plantation workers, cocoa prices can be as high or as low as buyers want them.

This is a problem for both small and large plantation owners; some plantations are small family run businesses that do not employ workers so the price of cocoa can be directly detrimental or beneficial to them. In Ghana, for instance, the majority of cocoa sales goes through the district government which purchase the cocoa from growers and then sell it to manufacturers. These government organisations cheat the cocoa growers by altering the scales and paying a lower price for the cocoa in order to make a larger profit.

The chocolate MNCs play a massive part in determining the lives of all the previously mentioned people. The cocoa growers depend on their demand for the bean; if the MNCs reduce their demand or turn to suppliers with lower prices then these people can lose their ability to earn money and even their homes. I will return to the MNCs later but we first have to acknowledge that cocoa grower’s standard of living is not always determined by factors under human control.

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Cocoa Trees in an African Plantation. (2017, Aug 24). Retrieved from

Cocoa Trees in an African Plantation
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