Pioneers of West-African Cacao

Pioneers of West-African Cacao

By Stefan Struik

It was a hot day in the year 1822 on the tiny Portuguese island São Tomé, 200 kilometers from mainland West Africa. Governor João Baptista de Silva e Lagos was personally present in the harbour to witness a merchant ship arrive from Brazil. The ship carried a valuable cargo, ordered by King João VI of Portugal: cacao seedlings who were brought in from Bahía in Brazil’s north-east.

Ivory Coast Cacao


For some unknown reason the farmers in Brazil had picked the less productive but - according to experts - high quality cacao variety to be brought to São Tomé: the Amelonado Forastero. it would later find its way to West Africa itself, while farmers on São Tomé would replace most by other, more productive varieties in the course of the 20th century.


São Tomé and Principe

At the beginning of the 20th century São Tomé and her even smaller sister island Principe claimed the title 'chocolate islands'. The Portuguese colony had become the world's largest producer of cacao beans with an annual production of 35,000 tonnes. But from there it only went downhill. In the first half of the 20th century the island’s plantations fell into an increasing state of abandonment because of a combination of political and economic factors.

After a military coup in Portugal in 1974, the islands quickly demanded and received independence, in 1975. Portuguese plantation holders quickly left the islands, afraid for a communist revolt by the black majority of the population. By that time cacao production already had fallen drastically to 12,000 tonnes. Independence didn't create a turning point. On the contrary: by the end of 2012 annual production reached her lowest point with 2,000 tonnes. Thanks to various investment programs the yearly yield is now slowly climbing up and crossed the bar of 3,000 tonnes in 2018. 


Fernando Póo

In the mid-nineteenth century, Fernando Póo appeared to be a ‘developmental’ failure, especially when compared with the neighbouring islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. The largest West African island stood outside the region’s slave plantation economies. Fernando Póo’s indigenous people, the non-iron producing and Bantu-speaking Bubi, remained unconquered by European imperialism until the late nineteenth century. Spain claimed the island in the late eighteenth century, but the disease ecology foiled colonisation until the late nineteenth century.

There is a very interesting personality connected to Fernando Póo: Fitzwilliam Owen. He was a zealous anti-slaver and his forces had liberated 2,500 slaves from detained ships. Now this is a part i am filling in myself. I can't find documentation about this, so please take it as a personal reflection, an assumption, but an assumption that seems very plausible: to emancipate the liberated slaves they needed a crop that would help them in their financial independence. And observing the success of cacao on the neighbouring islands São Tomé and Príncipe, cacao seemed a very good choice. It must have happened around 1850 that Fitzwilliam Owen bought cacao seedlings from the chocolate islands and distributed them amongst the new ex-slave farmers. 

After becoming a Spanish colony the economy of the island boomed. Cacao production along with coffee and oil palm thrived. But independence in 1968 turned everything upside down. Many fled the island, among them 60,000 Nigerians; and with the exodus knowledge about cacao disappeared as well. The production of cocoa could not be sustained, and production shrunk from 38.000 tons in 1968 to only 2.340 tons in 1975.



In Ghana, Tetteh Quarshie is honoured as the father of cacao. This member of the Ga-Dangme ethnic group was a blacksmith but for some reason decided in 1870 to travel to Fernando Póo. He spent between six and nine years on the island, working under poor conditions on several cacao plantations but gaining a lot of knowledge about growing cacao. Soon he also realised how much wealth cacao brought to the island. He developed the plan to bring cacao back to his homeland but knew that the Spanish and Portuguese defended their cacao monopoly and had strictly forbidden to export seedlings or cacao pods. Nevertheless Tetteh Quarshie succeeded in smuggling some beans, fresh from the pod, to Ghana. Once back he planted the cacao with reasonable success. Soon other farmers followed suit. 

Thanks to the courage and also the knowledge of Tetteh Quarshie, cacao became the most important crop in Ghana. By the end of the first world war Ghana was the unchallenged largest producer and exporter of cacao in the world with already 100,000 tonnes. She held this position until the end of the 70's, increasing her yield sixfold, when Ivory Coast took over world's cacao pole position. 


Ivory Coast

It didn't take long before farmers in Ivory Coast took notice of the cacao success in neighbouring Ghana but it took many decades before cacao became the dominant crop in Ivory Coast. Nowadays the Gold Coast country is highly dependent on the crop, which accounts for 40% of national export income. This single country is also responsible for 40% of world's total cacao production, an insane number. But it comes with a price. Farmers not only burn down jungles to keep expanding their cacao farms but when you talk about child labour in cacao production, the bulk of the criticism has also been directed towards situations in Ivory Coast. in the Western world the big chocolate companies like Nestle, Hersheys, Callebaut etc are accused of indirectly supporting this child labour. But according to other sources the main responsibility lies within the Ivory Coast government. For most cacao farmers there is no open market. They are forced to sell their cacao for fixed prices in a monopoly scheme.  The extreme low prices these farmers receive are not enough to pay for decent labour and also not for fertilizers and organic pesticides. 



Just recently, in October 2020 Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara announced, one month before the presidential election, that the cacao farmers will receive a fixed price of 1,000 CFA ($1.80) per kg for the 2020-2021 harvest. This is 20-30% below the already historically low World London Cacao Price. Why is the Ivory Coast government so desperately holding onto a fixed internal market price for farmers? And why is this fixed price almost half of the price that cacao farmers are earning in South-America and South-East Asia?


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