In Ikom, Nigeria, near the Cameroon border, a group of men from Indiana are eager to see their harvest. From under their leaves, mature cacao trees reveal pale, football-shaped fruit. The pods are prodded with bamboo sticks so they drop to the ground. Next, a machete strikes methodically at the exterior ridges until the fruit opens, exposing the soft, white beans and pulp that will be fermented, dried, sorted, and processed into a bitter powder used as the primary ingredient in fine chocolates. To the group’s surprise, harvesting in Nigeria is not mechanized the way it is in the US. These are not the great wheat fields of the Midwest. Work is long, tedious, and always done by hand.

But one of the men, Wayne Zink, now knows exactly why he’s here in Africa. “This was a way to make sure our cacao was ethically traded,” says Zink, CEO of Indianapolis-based Endangered Species Chocolate, whose packaging notes that 10 percent of net profits support the planet. Zink is not alone in his efforts. An emerging group of manufacturers are choosing to personally manage their chocolate, from the source to the final morsel. Through their pursuits to understand the origins of their product, bean-to-bar chocolatiers from Seattle to Switzerland are discovering that making chocolates of distinction directly links to how the cocoa is being farmed.

Joe Whinney, founder and CEO of Seattle’s Theo Chocolate, genetically maps the DNA of beans he buys from co-ops in Central and South America and from West Africa, where more than 50 percent of the world’s cacao comes from. He’s grown so invested in the quality of his chocolate that he teaches the farmers about intercropping­ — growing trees of other origins, such as avocados, teak, and black pepper, in the same plot. The added flora nourishes the soil, benefits the neighboring cacao trees, and provides cash crops in the off-season.

Whinney’s chocolates are all organic and Fair Trade–certified. The label, bestowed by TransFair USA on transactions between US-based companies and suppliers in developing nations, guarantees living wages and safe working conditions for farmers and ensures that child labor is prohibited. (TransFair also pays farmers a premium for community-minded initiatives like healthcare and microfinance programs, which the farmers themselves vote to put in place.) But Whinney goes beyond the Fair Trade guarantee to deal directly with the farmers, recognizing that while cacao currently sells for around $1,900 a ton, farmers often see only a portion of that amount. Fair Trade farmers receive at least $1,950 for each ton of organic cacao (more if the world price goes up), so Whinney pays between $3,500 and $4,000—allowing farmers to invest more in their families and land.

Appealing to the high-brow style and taste of chocolate gourmands, Alice Chocolate, a Swiss-American brand, presents artisanal, small-batch chocolate in designer packaging. Alice’s cacao grows wild in Bolivia and is harvested and traded by local farmers from whom the company buys beans directly. The result is an ethical bar full of flavor.

Amid the sweltering heat of Sekyerekrobo, Ghana, in a small farming community just a few degrees north of the equator, a farmer field school is teaching the arts of pruning, mulching, pest management, biodiversity, proper child labor practices, and everything else required to make each of the students’ seven acres of land fully sustainable. Soon these farmers will teach others in surrounding regions, and the cycle of responsible and educated cacao agronomy will grow, thanks to the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and one of their biggest supporters, Hershey’s. Jim Lampman, founder of Lake Champlain Chocolates of Lake Champlain, Vermont, is taking in the scene.

Known as a “melter” because he works with processed chocolate, Lampman and others in his category are putting their dollars into the WCF. Though many melters sell Fair Trade–certified bars, joining forces with the WCF is about taking the extra step. “We buy chocolate out of Belgium and France but still feel it’s our job to ask if the people responsible for harvesting are properly cared for,” says Timothy Moley, owner of Boulder, Colorado–based Chocolove, which backs the WCF to ensure that children in cacao-farming regions can access proper schooling systems. According to Moley, the WCF has projects across the globe tailored to address specific troubles farmers face, such as insect infestations and the need for greenhouses. The goal for the WCF and its backers is to create a global network of support.

Dagoba Organic Chocolate of Ashland, Oregon, not only works closely with the WCF but also signed an agreement with the International Finance Corporation to make low-interest loans available to the co-op in the Dominican Republic that supplies the cacao for its Conacado bar. Thanks to parent company Hershey’s, Dagoba also created a nursery in Costa Rica to house 240,000 young trees that will be used to reforest damaged areas and improve existing farms. And Dagoba works directly with its suppliers to lobby against governments like that of the Ivory Coast, which imposes a 50 percent tax on all cocoa growers’ output.

Kuapa Kokoo, currently Ghana’s largest cooperative (45,000 members), reversed the traditional farmer-to-supplier model when it founded Divine Chocolate, the first farmer-owned chocolate company in the world. In 1993, with outside funding, a group of farmers (mostly women) set up the co-op, which now owns 45 percent of UK-­­­­based Divine Chocolate and 33 percent of its newly established US counterpart, both of which are Fair Trade–certified. Taking control of their beans from source to production empowered the farmers financially and democratically; together, they make decisions about everything from package designs to the most productive farming methods to use.

As tastes elevate and research continues to confirm the health benefits of chocolate, more consumers will likely pay premium prices for bars with an ethical edge. In turn, these high-price business models can proliferate—but only for as long as they need to. If more chocolate manufacturers invested in their farmers’ lives, education, and, of course, crops, artisanal and ethical chocolates wouldn’t be so costly. Dagoba founder Frederick Schilling likens the need for a more farmer-centric production model to an old Chinese proverb: “Give a person a fish, you feed them for a day,” he says. “Teach them how to fish and you feed them for life.”

Story by Madhu Puri. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.

Mapping the DNA of cacao beans
Bean-to-bar chocolatiers are discovering that making chocolates of distinction directly links to how the cocoa is being farmed.