The treasure from Côte d’Ivoire

Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the world’s largest producer of raw cocoa – the most important ingredient in chocolate. But before the brown beans can sweeten our everyday lives as chocolate bars or in powdered form in hot milk beverages, they don’t just have to complete a long journey by sea. Our Swiss customer Barry Callebaut, a leading manufacturer of premium chocolate and cocoa products, reveals to us the fascinating transformation of cocoa – from the cocoa tree in the Ivorian rainforest to cocoa butter ready for production.

On the trail of cocoa, the most important export commodity and most valuable raw material in Côte d’Ivoire, we leave the vibrant port metropolis of Abidjan and already dive into a fascinating habitat at the city limits: the Ivorian rainforest. Here, it is warm all year round, the temperature never drops below 20 degrees Celsius (68°F), and almost everything is green. Thanks to its ideal climatic conditions, it also safeguards the true treasure of this West African country: the demanding cocoa tree.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Mayans considered cocoa to be a symbol of the cycle of life, and eating it was said to have a soul-warming effect and to trigger euphoric feelings of happiness. “Cocoa originally comes from South America, but the trees came to us in West Africa through colonisation,” explains Fabricio Blini, who heads the operational Africa business at Barry Callebaut. Today, close to 4,7 million tonnes of cocoa are produced each year worldwide – close to a quarter of which is supplied by the Zurich-based cocoa processor and chocolate manufacturer. In Côte d’Ivoire, it is grown on numerous plantations in the interior of the country, including their 44.500-acre expanse in Tiassalé, 123 kilometres northwest of Abidjan.

Here we are welcomed by the cocoa farmer Kone, who tells us that cocoa trees “are very sensitive and need special care”. As with good wine, the climate and soil of the plantation have an enormous influence on the taste of the product. Botanically speaking, they are a special case, as their colourful fruits already grow from the trunk beginning at ankle height. “The colour and size indicate the type of cocoa and how ripe the fruit is,” Kone explains. The riper oval fruits on his trees, which are up to 25 centimetres long and weigh up to a pound, are gleaming in yellow, orange and even violet. On the other hand, the colour of the unripe fruits is barely distinguishable from that of the tree leaves.  

There are two harvesting seasons each year in Côte d’Ivoire. While the peak season lasts from October to March, there is a secondary season between May and August. “Timing is the most important factor when it comes to harvesting,” Kone says knowingly from his many years of experience. One by one, he laboriously and carefully removes the ripe fruits by hand from their trees. With a machete, he carefully opens the hard shell of one fruit, revealing the cream-coloured, juicy-sweet flesh of the fresh beans, which contain up to 50 seeds. The aromas typical of chocolate only develop during the fermentation process, which takes several days and is overseen by Issaka Zerbo in the nearby warehouse. He then dries the fermented beans in the tropical sun for one or two weeks with uniform ventilation. Only now do the beans turn dark brown and shrink to about half their original size. “Not only visually, but also in terms of taste, they now resemble bitter-sweet cocoa,” he says before sending the beans in 64-kilogram jute sacks to the production facility in Abidjan.  

Once they arrive at the cocoa factory in the Marcory borough of Abidjan, the beans are cleaned, roasted and then ground. This results in cocoa mass, which is further processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder (cocoa press cake) and then prepared for export. Supply Chain Director Oscar Kouassi takes us on a tour of the massive warehouse in which the finished cocoa products are temporarily stored for no more than a week. Since the time-sensitive commodity also demands the highest quality during its onward transport in containers, Barry Callebaut relies on its good and close collaboration with Hapag-Lloyd. “The WAX service is ideal for us,” Kouassi says. “The quality of our cocoa beans benefits enormously from the short transit times.” The constant temperatures in our containers ensure that the beans don’t “sweat”.

From West Africa, Barry Callebaut exports more than a fifth of all the cocoa produced globally – and about a third of that is transported on our WAX service. “Without Hapag-Lloyd, we wouldn’t be able to supply the world with chocolate,” says Operations Director Fabricio Blini. “We are very satisfied with the quality of Hapag-Lloyd’s equipment, though we do think there could be even more of it,” he adds with a wink.

In its refined form, cocoa is mainly consumed outside its producer countries. “Each year, we transport 40,000 TEU from Abidjan, primarily to Europa, Southeast Asia and the United States,” Blini says. But even if processing in the growing country ends at this point, the work is far from over for Barry Callebaut. Once the sensitive cargo has arrived at the company’s chocolate factories, the cocoa products are processed into premium chocolate. In this way, these treasures attain their highest value 6000 kilometres from their home.

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