“Without cocoa, there is no chocolate,” says Brigitte Laliberté, the coordinator of the Global Network for Cacao Genetic Resources and the Cocoa of Excellence Programme (CoEx). “It’s as simple as this. Everything starts from there.” She’s right, yet every award honoring chocolate focuses on the end maker, not farmers. The celebrated outlier is the International Cocoa Awards (ICA), an event overseen by Bioversity International, a global research institution headquartered in Rome, Italy, focused on the conservation of biodiversity in food and agriculture. Farmers and the preservation of diverse varieties of crops are central to Bioversity’s mission, including the cocoa that becomes chocolate.
Every two years, CoEx brings together chocolatiers and sensory analysis experts to do blind tastings of processed cocoa samples. This year, the group received 166 samples of cocoa beans from 40 countries ranging from Australia and India to Madagascar and Sierra Leone, part of the equatorial belt where cocoa is grown. Last week in Paris, France, at the Salon du Chocolat, they awarded 18 of those entries with an ICA for their efforts and skill.
The goal of the Awards is to empower farmers by highlighting and celebrating the cocoa supply chain—and the quality and flavors that come from a combination of farmers’ knowledge, genetics, post-harvest processing and the many qualities of terroir, or the taste of place. However, the variety of tantalizing smells and tastes isn’t only about deliciousness. “Cacao diversity,” CoEx explains, “is also vital for production, as it provides not only different flavors, but also resistance to pests and disease outbreaks, and resilience in changing climatic conditions.
In the same vein as the Cup of Excellence awards for coffee, the International Cocoa Awards are also intended to help farmers command a higher price for their crop, which is what they need in order to keep growing cocoa. As Simran Bindra, the cofounder of Tanzania’s Kokoa Kamili (the first East African cocoa company to win an ICA), explains, “We’d spent a lot of time sitting under mango trees with the farmers and asking them: What would be most helpful? Would they be interested in access to loans? Would they be interested in agronomy training? Time and time again, we heard, ‘You know what we’d be interested in? We’d be interested in getting a fair price for our cocoa, for our hard work.’”
This seems basic, but, as previously reported, the majority of cocoa growers are extremely poor. The Cocoa of Excellence Programme strives to alleviate this challenge—and it seems to be working: in the annual evaluation survey, 57% of respondents confirmed that this initiative has helped farmers sell their cocoa at a premium price.
“Just because a farmer only owns a quarter-acre or a half-acre of land in a rural part of a poor country, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treated equally and fairly with the respect and commitment to ethical business practices that a much larger farmer in a more developed country would receive—or that a customer at a chocolate shop should receive,” Bindra says. “We’re eager to continue our work in making sure Tanzania is recognized as among the best cocoa origins. Hopefully, it will result in more interest from chocolate makers around the world.”
A full list of International Cocoa Award winners can be found here.