Cacao History Asia

Asia's Cacao History started in Austria


A boy of 16 was standing alone in front of a church altar in France during his marriage ceremony. His 14-year- old bride didn’t need to show up. Engaged since she was 11, everything had been arranged for her. Nowadays it would have been a scandal, but in 1615, it was nothing out of the ordinary. In those days, you were also considered an “old broad” if you were not married or were married and didn’t produce children before you reached 17 years of age. So there they were, sealed in a marriage of convenience: the young King Louis XIII of France and the beautiful Anne of Austria.

As young as she was, Anne still had a good eye and taste for novelties. Cocoa had only recently been introduced in Europe, when it was brought by the Genoan discoverer, Christopher Columbus, from South America. First, like the Incas and Aztecs, it was partaken of as a drink, so it was quite unique that Anne brought chocolate and not cocoa drinks to the French court. Unfortunately, it is unknown which cook created the dark delicacy, but it has certainly made an impact. Anne introduced many influential men to the brown gold, including her son, who became the most powerful person of his time: Louis XIV.



The desire for chocolate and cocoa drinks (pronounced as “cacao” at the time in England as well as the New World) spread across the European continent. Chocolate houses opened in the capitals, like precursors of the modern-day Starbucks. The lust for the dark gold impelled the Spanish to bring cocoa from their colonies in South America to their Asian colony, the Philippines. The recent disasters with their cocoa production in South America and the Caribbean were also another motivation to try out cocoa plantations in Asia. Diseases spread by pests had wiped out entire cocoa plantations, so in the early 1600s, the Spanish and Dutch began to look for other locations to grow the cocoa and naturally focused on other new colonies and areas around trading posts in Southeast Asia. There are stories that say they have experimented with cocoa on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi as early as 1560, although there is no documentation available to support this claim. Around 1770 the Dutch brought cocoa to Malaysia. The first record of a cocoa plantation in Southeast Asia, in Malacca, is dated 1778.



The Dutch were the main push behind the spread of cocoa in Southeast Asia, but it was restricted to Malaysia and the Indonesian islands of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. Production in the Philippines was limited, most likely because of the strong winds in the  area. The Netherlands became the largest importer of cocoa worldwide thanks to their Southeast Asian and African supplies, and they still have this strong position today. However, they might be overtaken by China in the next decade.

Heavy price fluctuations during the two World Wars and the rampage tour of the pod borer insect in Java in 1910 caused cocoa production in Indonesia and Malaysia to decline. Political instability didn’t help either. It was only after 1965 that Indonesia gained the lead in cocoa production in Asia, and it was soon followed by increased cocoa production in Mindanao, Philippines. Although Indonesia is struggling to keep production on course, they are still the third largest producer of cocoa, with 450,000 metric tons. Also, Malaysian cocoa cultivation developed greatly between 1970 and 1990 thanks to very high cocoa prices, but again, diseases caused production to plummet from 400,000 metric tons a year to approximately 30,000 metric tons today.



The French made some attempts to introduce cocoa to their colonies in the Indochina region (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) around 1900 but failed miserably. Rubber and rice remained the main agricultural businesses in this part of the world. After the Vietnam War, the communist approach didn’t work out as planned, and it brought the country to the brink of an economic meltdown. But the government had the courage to change course dramatically in 1986, and their economic reform (called “moi doi”) allowed private ownership. Because of the rising coffee prices, they saw coffee, which was rarely grown in Vietnam, as a good source of income for small-scale farmers, and with the offer of free seedlings, they encouraged them to give coffee a try. Currently, Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of coffee worldwide, after Brazil. After this coffee miracle, the government pinned their hopes on cocoa, but cocoa didn’t take off as quickly as the leaders had hoped. Nevertheless, they have high hopes that Vietnam will reach a production of 20,000  metric tons by 2020.



In 2014 cocoa was introduced in Cambodia in the Mondulkiri Province without any government support. A devastating drought in 2015 nearly killed the initiative, but in 2018 farmers of the private company Kamkav harvested and fermented the first cocoa pods. There are also serious plans to start contract farming in 2019 to encourage other small-scale farmers in the region to take on the production of cocoa. Cocoa is the new kid on the block in Cambodia, and with contract farming, it can become a serious alternative for many farmers who are struggling to make a good living with their usual production of cassava, which isn’t very profitable.

Back to blog

Leave a comment