Academy of Chocolate conference majors on tackling cocoa sustainability

Speakers from across the international confectionery industry gathered for the Academy of Chocolate’s main event of the year. Neill Barston reports

Tackling major issues of sustainability in the cocoa supply chain proved the core theme of this year’s Academy of Chocolate’s annual industry conference.

The event at the RAC club in London attracted a wealth of experts, manufacturers, chocolatiers, and industry consultants, casting a renewed light on challenges facing African nations such as the Ivory Coast and Ghana, serving the chocolate sector.

Confectionery consultant Pamela Thornton explained that a failure to invest in key cocoa growing territories had meant there was now a crisis situation within agriculture, with a lack of infrastructure severely hampering the sector.
She said: “Unlike other areas of the world, we haven’t seen economic development take place in Africa – 20 years ago cocoa farmers were seen as being rich in places like the Ivory Coast and Ghana, but we are now dealing with some huge issues throughout those countries.

As land is free there, they are just using the plants available, with no screening of planting material – and for many, there’s no alternative jobs so they become farmers.

“This isn’t something that’s sustainable, so economic development in Africa needs to take place,” noting that life expectancy for those working within the Ivory Coast farming sector was only into their early 60’s.

She also highlighted the fact that investment also needed to be targeted to the region’s growing urban population, with greater education required in inspiring future generations into farming.

Her concerns were shared by Academy of Chocolate chair Sara Jayne Stanes, who praised the efforts of those working towards improving sustainability within the industry.

She said it was only through consistent repetition of a message that the considerable challenges in cocoa production had to be tackled directly, in order for meaningful progress to be made on the key issues.
Among those speaking at the event was Nicko Debenham, sustainability officer at Barry Callebaut, who warned that the industry faced “huge systemic challenges,” which he felt could be addressed via companies and governments working together.

However, he acknowledged there were numerous barriers to improving the situation, including the suspension of improved crop strains for the 2018-19 seasons, amid concerns over cocoa oversupply.

“We cannot turn our backs on this. The farming systems in those cocoa growing nations need to be consolidated, with much of the tree stock requiring replacement, as well as better irrigation. Farmers are presently using the equivalent of Fiat Panda cars with present systems, but what they need are Ferraris.”

HRM Oba Dokun Thompson, a regional ruler from Nigeria, also spoke on the crisis facing cocoa farming within his own country and across key territories in Africa.

The traditional monarch, known as the Oloni of Eti-Oni, oversees the oldest cocoa plantation in South West Nigeria, and has been working to turn around his rural community into a sustainable community, against a wider backdrop of tough conditions for many farmers.

“What we are talking about with the death of cocoa trees and crops is actually the death of communities,” warned the monarch, who said that in his own area, efforts to inspire younger generations into farming had been put in motion, such as creating a new cocoa festival in order to celebrate the potential value of crops.

He added that there were a number of ethical and environmental considerations that the industry needed to face up to, with ensuring that rural communities are maintained and supported being of critical importance.  “One of the issues is that no young people want to become farmers, so we are left with a situation where cocoa is just being left to die on the trees, so what we are trying to do is bring back some dignity to farming through celebrating cocoa with our festival.”

Retail challenges

Beyond the core theme of sustainability in supply chains, there was also a segment devoted to how confectionery businesses can survive amid a challenging retail sector.

Speaking on events in the UK, Chantal Coady, of Rococo Chocolates, addressed the conference regarding some of the core issues faced by her business.

She revealed that despite investing considerably in extending regionally from its core London stores, the business had been forced to close one of its sites in Chester. This had been considered no longer financially viable due to spiralling costs of high street premises rental.

She said: “You need to be creative in order to survive in retail, and have the ability to appeal to millennials, and understand what it is that people really want and produce products that are worth them stepping out of their surroundings,” explained the retailer, who said that business within its anchor stores had in fact shown sales increases.

For his part, Angus Thirlwell co-founder, o confectionery chain Hotel Chocolat enthused that despite of numerous challenges to business, there was a sense of resilience within the market. However, he admitted that businesses had to work hard to tap into significant trends, such as a recognition that cocoa as a substance is actually good for consumers when taken in moderation.

As he explained, he believed that his own venture’s success lay in a long-term investment being made into its cocoa production operations in St Lucia, building key relationships with the island’s authorities, and devising community engagement schemes.

This has seen the business continue to expand, with a cocoa experience attraction set to open at the end of this year on its St. Lucia site, which Thirlwell enthused will help consumers gain a broader understanding of the sector.

He said: “Consumers are now taking a broader view of health issues, and with chocolate, they want to know the stories behind it are a lot more concerned about how it is grown.
“We would like people to think about chocolate in the same way they do with wine and vineyards and the terroir of coffee plantations,” added the entrepreneur, who told Confectionery Production that plans for its new centre in St Lucia were progressing strongly.

Another highlight from the conference came from Robert Harrison, sales director for Barry Callebaut.

He unveiled the company’s plans for its Eclipse range of chocolate products, which offer just 1% added sugar, which he believed responded to a strong consumer desire for greater choice.

The evening concluded with a demonstration from UK chocolatier Paul A Young, who offered inspiration to fellow confectioner’s in terms of combining bold flavours that he has developed for use within his chocolate ranges at his London-based stores.

  • Entries are now being taken for the 2019 Academy of Chocolate Awards, with a deadline of January 31st. Visit www.academyofchocolate.org.uk

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