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Cooperative members dry cocoa in São Tomé. ©IFAD/Joanne Levitan
Written by Daniela Cuneo

There are thousands of fine chocolate bars, all delicious and unique, but what makes some of them special? Is it the art of the chocolate makers? The quality of the cocoa beans? The technology used to transform them? The alchemy in the mix of ingredients? The packaging? Or is it the land where cocoa trees are grown?

All the above elements contribute to a quality product, but what really makes the difference is the partnership between producers and other private and public stakeholders (also known as the four 'Ps') along the cocoa value chain – and how the 'Ps' work together to grow high-quality cocoa beans, build supply capacity and establish market linkages in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Equolink 70% chocolate bars prove this to be the case. They are made from Fair-trade certified coconut sugar and high-quality cocoa beans produced by smallholder farmers in São Tomé and Principe who, until few years ago, were living below the poverty line. Today, their lives are much improved, thanks to distributors and consumers who believe and invest in high-quality, single-origin, equitably produced foods.

Investing in quality to reduce poverty
IFAD has been working in São Tomé and Principe since the early 1980s. In 2003, the Participatory Smallholder Agriculture and Artisanal Fisheries Development Programme (PAPAFPA) was launched there to improve the incomes and living conditions of 4,500 families. The programme reached about 19,000 farmers and artisanal fishermen.

Cocoa beans at IFAD event on sourcing certified
sustainable products from smallholders. ©IFAD
PAPAFPA’s work and investments empowered cocoa smallholders to get organized into primary cooperatives and apex, export cooperatives, which are nowadays capable of fully complying with the high standards required to trade on international markets. Given their focus on quality and attention to environmental and social sustainability, the cooperatives have been able to obtain both Fair-trade and Organic certifications.

Moreover, since 2012, PAPAFPA has been supported by the Strengthening Smallholders’ Access to Markets for Certified Sustainable Products (SAMCERT) initiative, funded by an IFAD grant, which works with groups of small-scale producers to identify the potential for Fair-trade, Organic and other certifications. SAMCERT is also working in São Tome and Principe to establish geographical indications used to identify products originating from a well-defined geographic area. Geographical indications represent one further step towards increasing the market competitiveness of smallholder producers, improving their livelihoods and stimulating overall development of rural areas.

PAPAFPA has successfully established robust private-public partnerships with several European companies, which act as both partners and buyers/importers of certified products (coffee, cocoa, pepper and other spices) into the EU market. The progress made by these partnerships is notable in terms of volumes of produce exported yearly, returns generated and the overall performance of concerned producers and exporters.

Indeed, since the beginning of 2012, CECAB, one of the four export cooperatives created under PAPAFPA, has been running its operations independently from the programme.

Meeting market expectations 
It is clear that many chocolate consumers are interested in more than just quality. They are always looking for new flavours and, more important, are interested in knowing where the chocolate originates and how it is produced. Increasingly, they care about the environmental and social impact of chocolate production. High quality is not enough if it implies abuse of natural and human resources.

Equolink 70% chocolate is produced with Fair-trade
cocoa beans and coconut sugar.  ©Equolink
That is why the Palermo-based cooperative Scambi Sostenibili took on board a suggestion by Slow Food to use cocoa beans produced by the São Tomé cooperative CECAQ-11 for a new chocolate recipe, and to put its production in the hands of a well-known Italian chocolate maker, Domori di None. The result? Equolink 70%, the only single-origin chocolate produced exclusively with ethically certified, Fair-trade cocoa beans and coconut sugar.

Thanks to this new recipe, the São Tomé bar was selected out of more than 700 fine chocolate bars traded on the Italian market as one of the nine finalists for the national prize Tavoletta d'Oro 2015 last month. São Tomé's entry did not win first prize but came very close and will participate in the International Chocolate Awards in London later this month.

For cocoa smallholders of São Tomé and Principe – and for all those who invest in quality and equity – this is an impressive result. We can only hope that there will be more such achievements in the future.