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Cocoa cultivation. Where does 70% of the world's cacao come from?

Reading time: 4 minutes

Originating from the forests of South America, the cultivation of the cacao tree proper (Theobroma cacao), has spread to many parts of the world, and today the cacao tree is one of the most important plants for humans. Bill Laws described it in his book entitled: '50 plants that changed the course of history' (Alma-Press 2016), and Charles Linnaeus called cacao the 'food of the gods'. He repeated a term that already existed in the time of the Maya and Aztecs, who made ceremonial cacao from cacao, which was drunk in the courts of the most influential among them. Nowadays, the cultivation of cacao is widespread throughout the world, although it is most important for African countries.

Find out more about the properties of cacao.

Cacao cultivation in numbers

According to Statista, 70% of the cacao that reaches the global market comes from four West African countries, namely Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon [1]. The cacao hegemons, however, are the first two of these countries - they account for more than 50% of production in total. Interestingly, cacao in Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast) saved and still saves lives. After independence in 1957, 80% of the population lived off agriculture, mainly growing just cocoa [2]. To this day, cacao plantations are a true treasure of Ghana. As far as Côte d'Ivoire is concerned, the 'tradition' of cultivation was imposed there during colonial times by the French, and today the country is the world's largest producer of cacao.

Slightly less important producers include Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Most of the plantations are on small farms with fields of up to five hectares. Only 5% of the crop is harvested from large plantations (over 40ha). This has its advantages - after all, cocoa provides work for millions (around 40-50 million) of farmers!

Cocoa - the miracle cacao

The cocoa tree is a tree that grows to a height of several metres without human intervention. On plantations, however, it is pruned to a height of about 3-5 metres to facilitate maintenance and harvesting. The tree bears elongated fruits, which are shaped like the balls used in American football. They are initially green, but turn yellow (or maroon) as they mature. Each has between 20 and 30 beans dipped in sweet pulp. Cocoa fruits of different varieties vary in colour and size. What they have in common, however, is a hard skin and white pulp inside. Although the cocoa tree bears fruit all year round, its cultivation is demanding and inefficient.
Only about half a kilo of beans are harvested per tree per year. As a result, a hectare of plantation yields only one tonne of cacao per year. Harvesting is by hand - the fruit is cut down with mosquito nets or knocked down with sticks, taking care not to damage the tree. This is because the cocoa tree is fragile and has a shallow root system. Climbing up the branches to the higher parts of the crown is too risky for it, so plantation workers are left to use long poles and jacks. Determining which fruits are ripe requires a lot of experience on the part of the farmer. Despite being a year-round crop, the fruit is generally harvested seasonally, usually twice a year. The harvest is followed by pulp fermentation, cocoa bean shelling, secondary fermentation, drying, roasting and - finally - grinding.

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Cocoa cultivation (Criolllo cocoa growing on a tree)
Cacao fruit

How are cocoa trees grown?

Growing cocoa is difficult and time-consuming. In order to establish a plantation, the beans must be sown - either collected directly from the fruit or those that have not yet had time to dry out (or that have been protected from drying out). The species quickly loses its germination power. Seeds are often sown in protective baskets or in nurseries, where they are protected from sun and wind. However, the seedlings grow so quickly that they are ready to be planted in their permanent location after just a few months. With good conditions and regular pruning, the cocoa tree bears fruit in the fifth year after planting. The longevity of the tree is unknown (isolated cocoa trees as old as two hundred years are found), but its economic usefulness is estimated at 25 years [3].

Light

The cocoa tree likes plenty of diffused light. Direct light harms it - especially in the early stages of cultivation. In the later stages of growth, the tree begins to cope with strong light, provided the substrate is rich in nutrients and regularly irrigated. Protection from the wind is also necessary. This is why cocoa trees are planted in the shade of trees such as banana, rubber or coconut.

Humidity

The tree needs high humidity in both air and substrate - and all season long! The optimum rainfall distribution is 1250-3000 mm per year, with rainfall that must occur regularly and dry periods of no more than three months. This is one of the main problems growers face.

Temperature

The minimum growing temperature is 18°C, the maximum 32°C. Only in these conditions can the cocoa tree develop properly. If the temperature stays below 10°C for several days, this has a significant negative impact on the quantity and quality of the crop. At 4°C, the tree frosts over.

Substrate

Cacao is grown on a variety of soil types, but it is advisable that the substrate has a high moisture-retention capacity. It must also be fertile to at least a depth of 1m. The correct soil pH range is 4.5-7.0 (optimum: 6.5) [4].
Cocoa cultivation requires a number of exacting conditions and is largely dependent on the vagaries of the weather. When the harvest is successful, the beans go to countries around the world after processing. And then we can enjoy another cup of hot ceremonial cacao.

Cacao cultivation

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[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/262620/global-cocoa-production/
[2] https://rep.up.krakow.pl/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11716/3364/17--Przemiany-mapy-Afryki--Kozanecka.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[3] http://apps.worldagroforestry.org/treesandmarkets/inaforesta/growing_cacao.htm
[4] https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/business-priorities/agriculture/plants/fruit-vegetable/fruit-vegetable-crops/cocoa
[5] P. Lavrovsky; How to distinguish cocoa beans?; The world of chocolate; 5/2018; s:60-64

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Our ambition is to import both ceremonial cacao and powder cacao from all over the world. We aim to bring organic BIO cacao everywhere. However, we sometimes travel to really wild and faraway places where we also meet extremelly pure cacao farms. Those ones are not labeled with certificates, as very often not tauched with civilisation at all or people there are too poor to apply for them. For sure the whole cacao we sell is 100 per cent vegan and kosher.
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