SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: When German economist and statistician E.F. Schumacher published his book ‘Small is Beautiful’ in 1973, he based his thesis on the premise that “if an economic unit can stay small, it’ll tend to be democratic.”
Schumacher conceptualised that a people-centric economic model would enable environmental and human sustainability. On some counts, the idyllic islands of Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, measure up to this epithet.
For one thing, Sao Tome and Principe are the second smallest islands in Africa (1000 sq. km.) and are undoubtedly beautiful.
They have the most robust democratic credentials in all of Africa.
Sao Tome is a low-income country ($2100 per capita in 2020) and is trying to graduate to a mid-income country by 2026. There are high expectations from its population and international donors that Sao Tome will move swiftly towards industrialization and economic emancipation.
Instead, Sao Tome is attempting to capitalise on its traditional reverence for biodiversity conservation in order to serve a niche and high-end international market.
The importance of agriculture
Agriculture contributes more than 55% of its total exports. Such exports are spurred by just five high-quality products: cocoa, palm oil, coconut, vanilla, and coffee. Due to their perceived high quality, they command a premium in world markets.
This is especially true of Sao Tome’s chocolates, whose distinctive bars are appearing in many European outlets. In 1992, Italian businessman Claudio Corallo was the pioneer businessman who set up a chocolate factory in Sao Tome city.
Today he is known as the ‘iconic chocolate man’ on the islands. He has ushered in a tradition of single-estate, vintage, and craft chocolate production. Sao Tomé’s chocolate exports constitute about 20% of Sao Tomé’s total exports.
Decades of passion and care about the exact permutation and combination of ingredients and the chocolate making process have resulted in unique flavours, like the orange, strawberry, and chilli flavours.
The chocolate islands
The chocolate industry has spawned many touristic tasting tours to the legendary chocolate trails through picturesque cocoa plantations and delightful villages. Visits to chocolate factories and outlets are included, where visitors can witness the delicate chocolate making process.
They can also try each of the four varieties of certified organic chocolate made with cocoa from the iconic plantations. It is possible to buy chocolate spreads, drinking chocolate, and bonbons. Tasting sessions are also held to sample a dozen kinds of chocolate. It is no surprise that an Italian newspaper rated Claudio Corallo’s chocolates as “the best in the world.”
Organic coffee is another exquisite export item of Sao Tome (7% of its total exports). Just like chocolates, renowned family-owned enterprises have elevated the smooth Sao Tomean Arabica coffee to the world stage.
Though low on volume, its quality has carved a niche for itself in the world of coffee. Sao Tomean coffee is expensive because it has a specially refined taste and is in short supply.
Like in the case of cocoa, tourists are taken through a historical coffee trail, culminating in a visit to the renowned Monte Cafe. Located in the ruins of the oldest coffee plantation in Sao Tome, the Coffee Mountain Museum evokes intense feelings of nostalgia about slavery on the plantation.
Rare vanilla production in the islands
Sao Tomé produces a rare kind of vanilla, which is identified by a distinctive nutty and caramel aroma. The process of growing vanilla is a painstaking yet delicate process.
Vanilha, a company created by an Italian businessman, is utilising the generational knowledge of a handful of vanilla farmers to perfect the process of production of high-quality vanilla beans, vanilla essence, and vanilla rum. As the owner says, “Vanilha is not about mass production; it’s a question of quality and patience. A flower is like a single bean, and it must be pollinated by hand, which is an expert skill.”
Coconut oil is another high-quality product. By no means a money spinner, bottles of Sao Tome’s organic and highly flavoured coconut oil are visible in several African and European markets. Belgian-French company Valudo rehabilitated the abandoned coconut groves in Sao Tome and is producing a variety of coconut products. The company was awarded a gold medal in Paris for their commitment to preserving the biodiversity of So Tomé and Principe.
The production of palm oil in Sao Tome is an odd case that has courted controversy and protests. Palm trees grow naturally in very conducive conditions. For a long time, the people and naturalists have been apprehensive about the destructive effects of palm cultivation on the precious biodiversity and soil of Sao Tome and Principe.
When a Belgian company attempted to acquire 5,000 hectares for palm oil plantations in Principe, the local people successfully thwarted the attempt. But an EU-financed company is running a palm plantation in Sao Tome. Of late, palm oil has emerged as the new main export product, garnering almost 30% of the country’s exports.
Through a carefully balanced policy, Sao Tomé is trying to reinforce its organic and sustainability credentials by creating pockets of excellence anchored on five of its best natural assets.
For Sao Tome and Principe, the Shakespearean question of “To be small or not to be at all” is not as important as whether it can promote sustainable use of its ecosystems and promote inclusive economic growth and diversification at the same time.