Cocoa: An Introduction (Part 1)

Cocoa. If you’re not familiar with Theobroma cacao, the seed pod that powers the chocolate economy, you might be surprised by its appearance. A knobbly yellow pod packed with a lattice of hard beans coated in a fruity white pulp bears little resemblance to the ubiquitous sweets we encounter in every supermarket.

The cocoa industry is complex and sprawling, with farming alone supporting more than 50 million livelihoods. Most of these farmers are smallholders, with Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana producing more than 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa.

When I started working in cocoa sustainability in May 2022 with the Beyond Beans Foundation, I found myself feeling a little lost when trying to get to grips with the complex series of economic, social, and political interests which influence the steps needed for this strange fruit to become chocolate. As such, I decided to write a series of blogs which I wish I had when I started working in this industry.

This series is aimed at providing a lay audience with an introduction to the world of cocoa, including how cocoa came to be the commodity it is today, the economics and logistics of the global cocoa trade, and what the cocoa industry needs to do to ensure its social and environmental sustainability. For a more in-depth analysis of the cocoa sector, you may be interested in KIT Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)’s Demystifying the Cocoa Sector. There have been a number of insightful books published about the cocoa industry, which will be recommended in a future post.

Topics to be covered in this series include:

  1. How Did We Get Here? : A Very Short History of Cocoa
  2. The Logistics of Contemporary Cocoa
  3. Realities of Cocoa Farming Livelihoods
  4. Effective Cocoa Development Projects
  5. Decolonising Cocoa

Though it may seem odd for a corporate blog, I must explain a bit about myself to explain my positionality, so that you may better understand the perspective from which I am writing. I am a white English man who grew up in a country of chocolatiers: Switzerland. I now work for the sustainability department of an agricultural commodities trader based in Amsterdam.

I mention these seemingly innocuous facts because it provides important context for how I relate to and experience the cocoa industry. Despite 60 per cent of global cocoa production occurring in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, chocolate production largely occurs in Europe and North America.

Switzerland leads the world in per capita chocolate consumption, with the average citizen chomping down 11.6 kg of chocolate per year. The Netherlands is also a major player in chocolate production and, therefore, cocoa consumption.

Despite the European climate being unsuitable for cocoa production (the only cocoa grown within European borders occurs on the Canary Islands), 33 per cent of cocoa grinding occurs in Europe, with 12 per cent of global grinding occurring in the Netherlands alone, approximately the same as the combined ground volumes of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Cocoa has traditionally been, and to an extent remains, an exploitative and extractive industry, with corporations and consumers in the Global North benefitting from the labour and low wages of producers in the Global South. I sit firmly within the Global North and, though I strive to be fair and as unbiased as possible, this fact will inevitably influence the framework through which I view and understand cocoa and its derivatives.

Upon completion of this series, we will write similar posts for other commodities with which Beyond Beans works including cashew and coffee.

Sources for all articles will be included at the end of each post.

Let’s learn about cocoa !


Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa. 2023. Cocoa Facts & Figures: Produced in the South – Consumed in the North. Accessed March 15, 2023.

Wageningen University & Research. 2021. “Living income in cocoa.” November 17. Accessed September 01, 2022.

Bymolt, R, A Laven, and M Tyszler. 2018. Demystifying the Cocoa Sector in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Amsterdam: The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), 278 – 297.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press.

%d bloggers like this: