Tree to Treat: the Sweet Journey of Chocolate

Here at home in the United States, we know chocolate as a candy aisle stable, a key component of s’mores, and a reason to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. But this delicious treat doesn’t magically turn into our favorite guilty pleasure — it must travel across the globe to end up in stores throughout the country. A piece of chocolate has humble beginnings on a tree thousands of miles away, and a lot goes into transforming it from tree to treat. This #InternationalChocolateDay, Feed the Future is celebrating the power of chocolate by unwrapping key facts about its sweet journey and how it impacts the lives of millions of farmers around the world.

It All Starts with a Tree

Chocolate starts out as a nib, which is found in a cocoa bean (see the picture) that grows in a pod on a cacao tree. Most of the world’s cacao trees are grown in areas within 10 degrees north or south of the equator in West Africa, South America and Asia. We work so closely with many smallholder farmers in these regions who grow cocoa. It’s their hard work that helps meet the global chocolate demand.

Let’s meet some of these farmers to see how they play a role in the sweet journey of chocolate.

Stop One: A Farming Staple in Indonesia

Photo by Millenium Challenge Corporation

Our first stop is the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia, where cocoa is one of the most important commodities produced. In fact, around 1 million smallholder farming households depend on producing cocoa for a living.

But growing it can be difficult. Farmers have to shield their cacao trees from the wind and sun, fertilize the soil around them, and keep a close eye out for pests and disease. Producing cocoa also takes time; a cacao tree doesn’t reach peak production of pods until it is 5 years old. Farmers can expect a cocoa pod to yield 20–50 beans and a cacao tree to yield around 20–30 of these pods per year.

Since it takes 500 beans to make one pound of chocolate, each cocoa tree produces anywhere from just one to three pounds of chocolate.

To ensure the highest yields, farmers need resources, knowledge and skills. This is why Feed the Future and its partners like the Millenium Challenge Corporation help smallholder cocoa farmers in Indonesia manage their farms more efficiently and effectively. Sound sweet? Watch this video to see how MCC helped Nanna increase the value of her cocoa beans!

And a Businesses Staple Too!

The quality and consistency of Indonesia’s cocoa is exactly what is needed to produce good chocolate, and companies like Mars, Nestle and Cargill are noticing. By leveraging partnerships with American businesses like these, as well as local private sector investments in Indonesia, we are promoting sustainable economic growth among cocoa farmers and scaling-up ongoing, industry-supported technical assistance and training activities for harvesting and processing it. Trainings in these areas are empowering Indonesian cocoa farming families with financial management skills and sustainable farmer certification that are improving their access to finance, markets and premium prices.

These companies understand that it is key to work together to achieve common objectives that brings benefits to individual company supply chains, smallholder cocoa producers and chocolate producers back in the United States. An outcome that is definitely not bittersweet!

Stop Two: Meet Delia, the Young Entrepreneur from Togo

Photo by Chocotogo

In Togo, located in West Africa, women cocoa farmers and entrepreneurs are gaining equal access to education, capital and technologies to increase agricultural productivity and decision-making skills. When this happens, not only does poverty go down, but children grow up healthier.

As CEO of Chocotogo, an artisan chocolate company based in Togo that sources cocoa from rural farmers, Delia Diabangouaya is proving just how much chocolate can make a difference. She is partnering with the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF), a Feed the Future partner, to gain seed capital and technical assistance to grow her business.

Thanks to USADF’s work with young entrepreneurs in agribusinesses, Delia is leading the charge in investing in Africa’s economic growth. Her goal is to produce top-quality chocolate and support smallholder cocoa farmers to have an impact in her community that doesn’t melt away.

Stop Three: Sweet Journey of Building Peace and Stability

Thomas Cristofoletti, USAID

Many people might not know that Colombia has huge potential to become a major global cocoa producer. Decades of violent conflict left the country’s rural regions with limited economic options, a situation which led many Colombians to turn to the illicit economy — illegal mines and drug trade — to earn a living.

Feed the Future, through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is introducing smallholder farmers in Colombia to cocoa farming as a way to earn an honest, sweeter living. Growing cocoa increases these farmers’ incomes, generates rural employment, creates stability and peace, and builds resilience. By introducing new technologies and innovations to grow healthy and better cocoa beans, Colombia is transforming into a leader in cocoa production.

But only if the cocoa bean is able to leave the farm at a fair price. Feed the Future is helping connect cocoa smallholder farmers to better markets so that they don’t have to go through local middlemen, who might purchase cocoa beans at a low price and then resell them for a tremendous profit. After receiving fair market prices, cocoa farmers begin the reverse journey home, using the money they earned to put nutritious food on the table and send their children to school.

But cocoa still has a few more stops to go before it becomes our favorite treat!

Quick Layover at Mariscal Sucre International Airport

Photo by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

In Quito, Ecuador, the locally-owned República del Cacao shop at the Mariscal Sucre International Airport proves how much good infrastructure can influence a company’s success. The shop began as a tiny kiosk selling fine locally-produced chocolate in Quito’s old airport, which was known to be a relatively dangerous place.

With financing from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a Feed the Future partner, the Mariscal Sucre International Airport was able to modernize into one of the busiest airports in South America. Five new passenger airlines and five new cargo airlines have come to the airport since it opened in 2013 — bringing new tourists to its terminals.

The increased tourism allowed República del Cacao to gain visibility among international consumers and increase the size of its business. It now exports its chocolates around the world and has opened additional shops.

Infrastructure, like airports and roads, has a huge impact on agricultural commodities like chocolate and without it, who knows how long it would take to craft that perfect piece of dark chocolate you see in the window of the local chocolate shop.

Last Stop: Home Sweet Home

Photo by Bobby Neptune/USAID

Once the harvests from the cocoa farmers and entrepreneurs like Nanna and Delia reach markets, chocolate processors abroad and here at home grind the nib into a paste and the cocoa butter inside it melts, creating cocoa liquor. This liquor forms the base of chocolate products and can be refined in different ways to change taste and color. But getting from cocoa liquor to chocolate is a long process! Processors will have to further refine the cocoa liquor, mix it with other ingredients, heat and stir it, and then — at long last — it’s ready to use in chocolate making — whether powdered or solid, hot or cold, or white or dark! Chocolate products include shavings and bars, cocoa butter and powder. Chocolate companies will then sell in markets around the world, including the United States.

In the United States, chocolate produces over $20 billion in annual revenue. So in addition to being a major consumer of cocoa, the chocolate industry is also generating jobs home. Because we don’t have the climate to grow cocoa, empowering cocoa farmers around the world establishes a reliable supplier for the U.S. chocolate industry, which strongly supports U.S. agriculture like the dairy and sugar sectors, and increases employment in the chocolate sector here at home.

As we travel along the path chocolate takes from tree to treat this International Chocolate Day, let’s remember the smallholder farmers who make it possible for our lives to be a little sweeter with chocolate.

Read more stories of how Feed the Future works with farmers around the world in our latest progress snapshot and join the #endhunger conversation online.

More About Our Partners

The U.S. Agency for International Development contributes to Feed the Future by leading interagency coordination as well as field implementation of the initiative. USAID manages an array of agricultural development, nutrition and resilience projects that support Feed the Future’s goals, move countries along a path toward self-reliance, and leverage partners, like the private sector and research community, for sustainable progress. USAID also provides expertise and leadership in rigorous monitoring, evaluation and learning for the initiative.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture contributes to Feed the Future with agricultural programs and activities focused on capacity building, international food assistance, research, and the promotion of science-based solutions to expand markets and trade.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation contributes to Feed the Future by working with countries to implement market-driven solutions to poverty and food insecurity. MCC invests in a variety of projects that include critical infrastructure, sanitation and nutrition, stronger property rights and improved land policy, as well as access to finance. From the formalization of land rights for more than 320,000 land users to the disbursement of more than $87 million in agricultural and rural loans, MCC’s investments are helping to empower farmers and rural economies.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. government’s development finance institution, contributes to Feed the Future by helping the private sector invest in agriculture across the developing world. By providing financing, political risk insurance, and support for private equity, OPIC helps U.S businesses invest in emerging markets. Over the past 20 years, OPIC has invested more than $500 million in projects that support food security, irrigation, and smallholder farmers.

The U.S. African Development Foundation contributes to Feed the Future by addressing, at the grassroots level, the root causes of hunger and food insecurity. USADF provides seed capital and local technical assistance directly to small and medium agricultural enterprises to improve productivity, strengthen resilience and increase incomes for smallholder farmers. Since 2010, USADF has invested over $100 million in enterprise development and reached nearly 3 million farmers and their families with better food security.