Cocoa Farming

Gorontalo - May 1, 2019: Farmers in remote areas of Gorontalo are harvesting cocoa.

Have you ever wanted to know where the chocolate you eat comes from? The delectable, sweet chocolate treat we all like to indulge in starts out as a cacao bean that grows in football shaped-pods on the Theobroma (cacao) tree. These trees are grown on small farms in tropical environments around the world. The conditions for
chocolate farming are just right 15 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Any farther in either direction, and it is too cold for cacao trees to grow and produce fruit.

To learn more about cocoa farming, including the farmers who cultivate and harvest the cacao beans, where the farms are located, how much cocoa farmers are paid, and how chocolate farming can become a more sustainable industry, keep reading.

Cocoa Farmers

About 70 percent of the world’s cacao farming takes place on the West African coast, with the remaining 30 percent in Central and South America, the Caribbean and southeast Asia. About 2 million of the world’s 6 million cocoa farmers live in the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

While chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry, most cacao farmers barely make enough to survive. (You can read more about farmers’ wages below.) Such extreme poverty has led to social and ethical issues like child labor. Because cacao farmers cannot afford to hire workers or send their kids to school, they put children to work for little to no pay doing dangerous, often gruelling agricultural work.

To counter this issue, authorities in the Ivory Coast and Ghana introduced a Living Income Differential in 2019, which added $400 to the price of a ton of cocoa. While this was a step in the right direction, some cacao farmers have had a difficult time selling their cacao beans at the higher price. In addition, the COVID-19 global pandemic impacted cacao farmers as shutdowns and supply chain disruptions affected the demand for cacao beans.

Along with social and ethical issues, cocoa farming is responsible for the decrease in soil fertility and the destruction of millions of hectares of forests. Between 1988 and 2008, as much as three million hectares were cleared to make room for more cacao trees to be planted.

To help curb deforestation, the government in Ghana has brought to light a little-known policy in that country that grants farmers ownership of the timber trees on their cocoa farms. The drawback to the policy is that it covers only trees planted by the farmers and not trees that come up voluntarily. Industry groups are working to educate farmers so that they can claim ownership of the trees they plant.

Farming Techniques

While farming processes in the US have changed dramatically over the last century, the same cannot be said of cacao farming techniques. In many parts of the world, cacao farmers work the land the same way they have for decades. They grow the same crop on the same land and rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers. When cacao trees fail to grow, they turn to slash and burn methods to clear land and plant new cacao trees. These farming methods are unsustainable over time due to their detrimental impact on the environment.

Cacao harvesting is also performed the same way as it always has been—it’s one of the few harvests still done manually. When cacao pods are ripe, they are cut from the tree by hand with a machete to keep from damaging the cacao pod, the tree, and any new cacao pods starting to develop. Because cacao pods ripen at different times, the cacao harvest takes place all year long, with two main harvesting periods.

After the cacao beans are fermented and dried, they are sent to a shipping port where they are combined with beans from thousands of other cocoa bean farms and shipped to destinations in Europe, North America and Asia.

To ensure cacao farmers succeed, sustainable cocoa farming methods need to be implemented. Some methods that would provide more benefit to farmers and encourage long-term growth and sustainability include the following:

  • Multi-layer farming: Using this process, multiple crops of different heights are grown together on the same farm and at the same time. Taller trees can protect the shorter Theobroma trees from the wind and other elements.
  • Permaculture: This system works with nature and does not use chemicals or machinery.
  • Zero budget natural farming: With this method, farmers make their own natural compost, insecticide and fertilizer.

Research has shown that cacao farmers need more education about sustainable farming practices and the reasons behind them. The results of a study that looked at farming methods by cacao farmers in Cameroon showed that more than 95 percent of farmers knew good farming practices, but only 48 percent implemented those practices. Because 64 percent of these farmers believed that quality did not have an impact on price, they focused on bean weight rather than quality.

Farming methods in South America are much the same as those in West Africa, where forests are cleared to make room to plant new cacao trees. But different farming methods are used in Southeast Asia, where a growing movement focuses on sustainability and environmental conservation along with improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers. The Sustainable Farming in Tropical Asian Landscapes project in Indonesia and the Philippines aims to turn small farmers into agricultural entrepreneurs.

How Much Money Does a Cocoa Farmer Make?

Most cocoa farmers live in extreme poverty and make less than a dollar a day. On average, cocoa farmers earn just 6 percent of the final value of a bar of chocolate. Most cacao farmers make between $1,400 to $3,000 profit a year. Each farmer typically supports a household of 6 to 10 people, and the entire household must live on about 50 to 84 cents per day, which is well below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day.

According to Fairtrade, a living income for these cocoa farming households should be around $7,500 per year, which is over twice what they actually earn. A living income is defined as the amount needed for a farmer to support a decent standard of living for his entire household. For the 2020-21 buying season, the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast committed to pass on 70 percent of the price of cacao beans to the farmer to help decrease the living income gap, or the gap between what a farmer earns compared to a living income.

The majority of cacao beans are sold as a commodity crop which suffers from price fluctuations that have a negative impact on cacao farmers’ incomes. The volatility in the market can cause farmers in Africa to lose even more of their income and plunge them farther into poverty. In the commodities market, farmers are paid the same regardless of quality, and women especially struggle to support themselves.

Two systems designed to improve wages and working conditions for cacao farmers and ensure ethical and sustainable growing practices are fair trade and direct trade. Fairtrade International is a global organization committed to ensuring ethical practices along the cacao supply chain. This organization offers a certification for those who meet standards they have implemented and which have a three-fold purpose: that the cacao beans were produced by growers who were paid a fair wage, that safe working conditions and the environment were priorities, and that ethical practices and labor standards were upheld.

Direct trade differs from fair trade in that it focuses on the relationship between the cacao buyer and the farmer. In the direct trade system, the buyer works directly with the farmer to determine the price and then buys directly from the farmer. Craft chocolate makers build long-term relationships with cacao farmers. This ensures that growers are more successful economically and that the cacao they grow is of the highest possible quality. The direct trade system helps close the gap between the farmer and the consumer and provides a higher quality product at a fair and liveable wage.

At Cococlectic, we offer products from craft chocolate makers who support smallholder farms to create a more sustainable and ethical chocolate bar. Each month at Cococlectic, we feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker who is passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.

The chocolates sold at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.

We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. Our monthly subscription boxes contain only dark chocolate bars. One-time gift boxes and Office Boxes are filled with your choice of dark bars only or mixed bars with inclusions of fruits and nuts. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size chocolate bars that are made in the US (Office Box comes with 10 full-size chocolate bars).


Sign up for our chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.