As the sixth largest cocoa producer in Africa, and with 2017/2018 volumes of just 9,000 tonnes (ICCO data) Togo is tiny in comparison with the continent’s two cocoa giants, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. Although the ‘brown gold’ accounts for little in terms of GDP, it is nonetheless an important export commodity and provides a living for almost 20,000 families.
IMF market liberalization programs imposed during the 1990s along with steep falls in global prices have led to a halving in cocoa-producer income levels. In addition, the past fifty years have seen harvest volumes slashed by two thirds due to the ‘swollen shoot’ virus and a lack of State technical support. The 2011 PNIASA (Programme national d’investissement agricole et de sécurité alimentaire, National Investment Program of Agriculture and Food Security)has produced some positive results with growth evident in recent years, and particularly within the cocoa industry. Positive private sector initiatives are also being undertaken. One of the most remarkable is Choco Togo. Founded in 2014, this is Togo’s first local artisanal cocoa transformation cooperative. In this conversation with the Choco Togo co-founder and Head of Quality Control, Delia Carmen Diabangouaya expands on how this cooperative is committed to showcasing Togo’s cocoa on both local and international markets.
RESSOURCES: Can you explain to our readers how Choco Togo is structured and how it operates? What prompted your decision to set up Choco Togo?
Delia Carmen Diabangouya: Choco Togo is a cooperative structure comprising young Togolese who work within the chocolate sector and produce natural artisanal chocolate that is ‘100% Made in Togo’. We transform organic Togolese cocoa into chocolate and other derivative products including cocoa paste, cocoa spread, roasted cocoa beans, etc. The Choco Togo cooperative came about thanks to the FYSIC (Fair Young Sustainable and Inclusive Cooperative) project as part of the 2007-2013 EU Youth in Action Programme. In May and October 2013, six young Togolese entrepreneurs were selected to take part in a chocolate making course in Modica, Sicily and attend the international Fair-Trade chocolate festival held at Città di Castello in central Italy. Upon their return, they spent time at various cocoa farms learning about local production techniques. While there, they understood that Togo’s cocoa farmers were only receiving income from selling untreated cocoa beans and that there was an absence of local transformation processing. Using their own capital, these entrepreneurs decided to set up a local artisanal transformation structure called Choco Togo and, in this way, tap into the underexploited value-added opportunities within the industry.
R: What makes Choco Togo products stand out?
D.C.D.: Choco Togo chocolates are ‘bean-to-bar’ products. We transform our own cocoa beans into chocolate and all our products are refined with locally sourced natural ingredients. As well as brown sugar, we add for example, ginger, peanuts, and coconut to create a variety of different flavors. Something else that makes our chocolate unique is our organic cocoa bean. We use a very old, almost extinct variety, called the Amelonado. The Amelondao bean carries an aroma and bitterness that is particularly prized among the world’s finest chocolatiers. We offer a wide product range exclusively dedicated to the finest dark chocolate (50%, 60%, and 70% cocoa content) as well as dark chocolate with peanuts, ginger, and coconut, roasted cocoa beans, chocolate spread and more besides. Finally, our production process uses zero additives or chemicals, thereby retaining all the benefits and original flavor of the cocoa bean. Our production process also perfectly suits the natural aspects of this product by way of manual transformation techniques such as the laying out of the beans in the sun to dry.
R.: You are Togo’s first ever local artisanal cocoa transformation business. Why do you think that is?
D.C.D.: In 2014, Choco Togo effectively became the first local entity to embark on the transformation of cocoa into chocolate products. Since the Germans first introduced cocoa in 1884, all of Togo’s production has been consistently exported. This uni-dimensional focus on production is a by-product of the former colonial times when the potential for any local transformation activity to boost commodity products was ignored. Unfortunately, since independence, this business model has remained intact and the old ways continue to operate. As such, no transformation business has ever really been established either in Togo or further afield within Africa. Furthermore, for a long time, local cocoa-producers were unaware of the real value of their produce, and most didn’t even know what cocoa beans were being used for.
R.: How is business at Choco Togo these days?
D.C.D.: Choco Togo has two productions sites, one in Lomé, where we carry out the secondary transformation processes, and the other in Kpalimé (120 km north west of Lomé), where the primary transformation processes occur. Approximately fifty women work on a part-time basis at our Kpalimé facility, and at Lomé, we have a staff of ten or so young adults working full-time. Choco Togo’s production volumes have risen from 600 kg when we first started to a full 16 tonnes in 2018. We have taken part in many national and international events, in particular the 2016 and 2017 Paris, Brussels, and Milan Salons du Chocolat, as well as the 2017 Paris Agricultural Show. Choco Togo has also won a number of awards, not least among them second prize for innovation during the 2015 SIALO (Salon international de l’agriculture et de l’agroalimentaire, Lomé International Agribusiness Show, first prize for innovation by young agrifood entrepreneurs at the 2015 Salon du goût Terra Madre in Italy, (Mother Earth food fair), first prize for the best entrepreneurial project at the 2015 Forum des jeunes entrepreneurs (Togo Young Entrepreneurs Forum), and second prize in the 2016 Francophone 35.35 Agriculture-Agribusiness category.