Togo and Gabon: two promising outsiders

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.

R.: Can you talk a little about Togo’s cocoa industry and its specificities?

D.C.D.: After a period of long-term neglect, Togo’s cocoa industry is now growing strongly. The industry’s various actors are grouped into four primary families. Togo’s coffee and cocoa producing family is represented by a co-operative with its own board of management called the FUPROCAT-COOP-CA (Fédération des unions de sociétés coopératives de producteurs de café et de cacao du Togo, Togo’s federation of coffee and cocoa co-operatives). Its coffee and cocoa purchasing family is represented by the SIACCTO (Syndicat indépendant des acheteurs de café et de cacao du Togo, Togo’s independent coffee and cocoa buyers union). The coffee and cocoa exporting family is represented by the CECC (Conseil des exportateurs de café et de cacao, Coffee and Cocoa Exporters Council). Togo’s fourth coffee and cocoa transformation family is represented by the ATCC-Togo (Association des transformateurs de café et de cacao du Togo, Togo’s association of coffee and cocoa transformers). All four families come under the umbrella organization of the CICC (Conseil interprofessionnel des filières café et cacao, Interprofessional Coffee and Cocoa industries Council), which aims to facilitate business contract conclusion and inter-professional dialogue, as well as supporting the development of the coffee and cocoa industry.

Togo’s total cocoa plantation surface area is approximately 26,000 hectares, and these are worked in family units of on average 2 hectares each that individually yield between 300 and 600 kilos per hectare, making overall production for the 2017/18 campaign stand at 8,000 tonnes. Production is essentially concentrated in the Plateaux region’s areas of Agou, Kloto, Wawa, Akébou, and Blitta. Although the cocoa industry only makes up 0.2% of the nation’s GDP, it nonetheless plays a key role in the economy and provides a living for thousands of Togo’s families.  

R.: What do you see as the challenges facing Togo’s cocoa industry?

D.C.D.: The major challenge facing Togo’s cocoa industry is falling production levels due to ageing plantations. Added to this is the fact that increasingly Togo’s younger generations are looking to leave the land and their parents’ plantations in favor of a livelihood elsewhere. Cocoa prices are often on a downward trend discouraging producers who are turning to more lucrative and less onerous opportunities, such as soya beans and cashew nuts. Cocoa quality is also a challenge in so far as Togo’s production levels are very small and as such the focus has to be on quality in order to secure some sort of meaningful comparative advantage. In Togo, as in Africa more widely, one of the greatest challenges for the sector is industrialization and local transformation as sources of added value.

R.: What are Choco Togo’s goals going forward?

D.C.D.: Choco Togo is focused on remaining a leader in Togo’s cocoa transformation business and on gaining market share both in Africa and abroad, through cocoa related product diversification as well as increased exports to the African sub-region, Europe, the USA, and Asia. Our products are currently being sold in a dozen boutiques in Lomé, showcased in France, Italy and Belgium, and exported to Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast. We are looking to acquire more equipment and augment our production capacity even further.

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