Have you ever thought about where your delicious Valentine’s Day chocolate comes from? While we don’t have any trouble picturing an ear of corn growing out of the ground, it may be more difficult to picture chocolate in its raw form – the cacao pod. In fact, walking by a cocoa field, you might assume you were looking at some sort of melon! Indeed, cocoa is not a common crop in the U.S.; however, it will come as no surprise that the U.S. is one of the top importers of this defining ingredient in chocolate (World Cocoa Foundation).
Last year, I traveled through cocoa fields in the small country of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa as part of a partnership between the World Cocoa Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), talking with farmers about their needs. In this part of the world, farmers generally live on less than $2/day and rely on cocoa for 60 to 90 percent of their income (CSIS). They meet enormous challenges, from poorly connected markets to unpredictable weather changes, but one of the biggest challenges they face is accessing technology. Here are four key technologies that we may take for granted, but are critical to producing the chocolate we know and love:
1. Communications Technology: It may be hard to believe in our hyper-connected world, but most cocoa farmers struggle to get good information on how to handle their crops, especially if something unexpected happens. Practices like how and when to weed, how to handle a pest, and how to break open the cocoa pods are critical to cocoa production and farmer incomes. Because about 70 percent of the farmers own two or three mobile phones, cocoa companies, governments, and the World Cocoa Foundation are utilizing text messaging to help share information with farmers, such as reminders on the timing of different management activities throughout the season
2. Processing Technology: Up to 30 percent of a farmer’s crop is lost after the harvest due to issues like post-harvest pests, moisture, and/or transportation damage. After cocoa beans are removed from the pods and fermented, farmers must reduce the moisture of the bean from about 60 percent to less than 7.5 percent. If the drying is too slow, mold can develop. To dry the bean, farmers use drying tables that can use either solar heat technology or a mechanical dryer. In addition, a moisture meter is used to tell the farmer when drying is complete. Small devices like this may seem simple, but they are critical to keeping post-harvest losses to a minimum.
3. Pest Control Technology: Pests are an enormous problem for fragile cocoa trees. Forty percent of the global cocoa production is lost every year due to pests and diseases alone – a loss estimated at $2-3 billion (Bioversity International). When it comes to controlling pests, there’s an even bigger barrier than accessing technology: Knowing how to use it. Skillful application of pesticides is critical for farmers, and many don’t receive training or have access to “optimizing” nozzles that help target spraying more accurately. Programs that train and supply a small group in judicious pesticide applications are being launched within cocoa-growing communities. These programs work to target pesticides to only the parts of a plant or field that need them.
4. Input technology: One factor that affects the flavor of chocolate is the planting material used for the cocoa trees; however, quality planting material is difficult for farmers to access. Improved planting material gives chocolate its unique taste and is also important for disease resistance. Additionally, Africa has some of the most depleted soil on the planet, largely because of the low use of inorganic fertilizer (see infographic at right). By providing farmers with training in best practices, they can more than double their cocoa yields (World Cocoa Foundation).
This Valentine’s Day, when you’re curled up with your sweetie and a cup of hot cocoa, you’ll be enjoying the fruits of both the labor and critical technology of cocoa farms and farmers in West Africa. Sampa! (Baoulé for Celebrate!)