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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Ugly Secret of Sao Tome’s Chocolate Industry

During the 18th-19th century, Sao Tome's cocao industry thrived only because of men and women toiling on humid plantations, who were subject to slave-like conditions

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Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: The islands of Republic of Saotome and Principe, off the Gulf of Guinea, are as much known for high-quality chocolates as for their boundless natural beauty. At one point, it was the world’s largest cacao producer and aptly named the ‘chocolate islands’.

Cacao pods. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Even today, Sao Tome is replete with cacao farms. Due to its rich volcanic soil and location, Príncipe island is better suited for the cultivation of premium cacao. Most of the cacao of the world is grown in the strip of land between the tropics & Príncipe island.

The freshly picked cacao beans. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The cacao economy of Sao Tome

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Cacao is one of the important economic drivers of Sao Tome’s economy. The dark chocolate bars from Sao Tomé and Principe are a delight for the dark chocolate lovers.

Over 70% of Sao Tome’s chocolates have a complex flavor, rich in roasted cacao and with plenty of refreshing fruity flavors including apricot, red fruits, citrus, and even a hint of tea.

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To delve a little into history, after the Portuguese colonized these uninhabited islands in the 1500s, they soon came under pressure to make it profitable. Their administrators initially managed to create sugar plantations. Without a native population, they brought slaves from the African mainland, including Angola and Congo to work in newly created sugar ‘fazendas’ (farms).

Cacao trees in Sao Tome. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The history of cacao in the islands

From the middle of the 16th century, Sao Tome became Africa’s largest producer of sugar. This predominance did not last long as the slave labor grew too restless, even violent, due to poor working conditions. The growing competition with Brazil and other regions was also an important factor. Due to this, by the mid-1500s, Sao Tome’s sugar production declined.

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Portuguese administrators continued searching for activities that would generate income. In 1780 they introduced coffee production. Somewhere around the early 1800s, these lovely African islands became the first to import cacao from Brazil. As demand for cacao increased in the late 1800s, Portuguese investors bought farmland to grow cacao using the same slaves. In 1824, cacao was successfully grown on Príncipe.

Cacao was grown in ‘rocas’ or estates, which operated as self-sufficient units with all production facilities. Soon Sao Tome and Principe gained fame as the principal supplier of cacao for Great Britain’s three largest chocolate makers at that time – J.S. Fry and Sons, Rowntree, and the Cadbury Brothers. For several years, this tiny Portuguese colony was the world’s most important source of chocolate’s basic ingredient.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

However, just as with sugar plantations, the owners could not sustain and control the slave labor on the cacao farms. When slavery was abolished within all Portuguese colonies in 1869, the cacao industry faltered due to a lack of farm labor.

Slavery in the chocolate industry

But Sao Tome’s dark chocolate hid a dark and ugly secret. Its cacao industry thrived only because of men and women toiling on humid plantations, who were subject to slave-like conditions.

Quite oblivious to the presence of such inhuman working conditions, European and British chocolate makers continued importing cacao beans from the islands.

But soon the stories of slave-like conditions became known to everyone in Europe. It was said that in 1901, William Cadbury saw an advertisement listing building, equipment, and some hundred workers as assets of a São Tomé plantation that was for sale. Soon, European chocolate producers imposed a boycott on imports from Sao Tome and Principe.

Cacao pods. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

However, plantation owners in Saotome managed to increase exports to new chocolate producers in America.

By 1913, São Tomé and Príncipe became the world’s largest cacao producer, exporting more than 36,500 tons in a single year. But a host of factors soon brought about its downfall in 1935.

After independence in 1975, a lack of investment and collapsing global prices witnessed the gradual downturn in São Tome’s cacao industry.

After decadent growth between the early 1890s to 1975, Sao Tome has seen a remarkable resurgence, primarily driven by the efforts and enterprise of a few chocolate businessmen.

Claudio Corallo, an Italian coffee merchant, bought a plantation in 1997 and cultivated cacao. With the growing popularity of cacao, he was able to put Sao Tome back on the global chocolate map. Well-known chocolatier François Pralus came up with a chocolate bar featuring a map of Saotome.

Divine chocolate bars. Photo Credit: Unsplash

Ghanian company Divine launched a new range of organic, high-quality dark chocolate bars in 2018. On Principé Island, South African IT billionaire and astronaut Mark Shuttleworth’s HBD have invested in sustainable tourism and the cacao sector. Even cacao safaris are being organized.

The tiny economy of this island nation is dependent on exports of cacao at around the US $ 1.3 million (75% of total exports). From being a flag post for slavery and forced labor to a clean and modern producer of premium cacao, Sao Tome has come a long way.

Today, cacao is connected to everyone on the exotic islands in some way or the other. The challenge for the government is to maintain its exclusive quality and bet on cacao value-added products.

Also Read: Yuva Tourism to Reshape India’s Tourist Sector

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