One of the wonderful benefits of working in craft chocolate is the serendipitous insights it offers into geography, history, food science and much more. And this week as part of introducing a new French craft chocolate maker, La Reine Astrid, I’ve started to scratch the surface of the complicated, painful and difficult history of Cameroon and chocolate. And the good news is that thanks to Christophe and his team at La Reine Astrid, there are now some grounds for optimism and a path forward.
See below for more on both La Reine Astrid, the Cameroonian co-operative they’ve set up, and on Cameroon overall.
A Very Quick History of Cameroon
Cameroon lies at the junction of West and Central Africa, and takes its name from from “Rio dos Camarões” (which translates as “River of Prawns”); the name given to the Wouri River estuary by Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Archaeological digs have confirmed that humans have inhabited Cameroon for at least 50,000 years and amongst the oldest peoples are the Pygmies (known locally as the Baguielli and Babinga), who live in the Southern forests.
Along with the pygmies, Cameroon’s people claim to belong to over 200 different ethnic groups, bearing witness to a complex history of different kingdoms including the Sao, Kotoko and Fulanic who built advanced cities, trading routes and cultures whilst Medieval Europe was barely getting started. However, from the 16th century the Portuguese, and later British and Dutch, established a presence on the coast (malaria initially prevented them going much further inland) and Cameroon became a tragic part of the African slave trade for the next three centuries.
Armed with antimalarial drugs, the Germans laid claim to what they called “Kamerun” in 1884. Initially they came as traders, but gradually they also set up massive agricultural plantations based on forced labour (a eupehmism for slavery). And it was during this period too that cocoa appears to have been first introduced into northern Cameroon.
As part of the spoils of World War I “Kamerun” was split between the French and British. Both colonial powers set up various corporations and trading companies to export raw materials for factories in their home countries and secure home country industrial development. Neither colonial power paid much attention to local needs and infrastructure, leaving Cameroon as an agrarian economy reliant on exporting basic raw materials, foodstuffs and commodities, a condition that still blights Cameroon’s economy today.
Post World War II Cameroon slowly, and painfully, established independence from both France and Britain. After a bitter civil war France granted independence on January 1st 1960 to its former colony. And then under a UN plebiscite in February 1961, the Northern parts of British Cameroon joined the Federation of Nigeria, and the South joined the former French Cameroun, creating the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Since then, Cameroon has struggled politically and economically (or as the Encyclopedia Britannica diplomatically writes “the political situation is less than ideal .. corruption is rampant”). Cameroon continues to rely on exporting raw materials, including cocoa. The discovery of exportable petroleum and oil in the 1970s helped the establishment of a few local agribusinesses, along with some petroleum refineries and related businesses. And some money was ploughed into education (literacy in particular improved dramatically). But Cameroon remains very underdeveloped with limited infrastructure and no significant industrial enterprise. Many of its people remain stuck in a poverty trap with over 30% of Cameron’s 25 million people judged to be below the poverty line, and Cameroon ranks 151 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index.
The Role of Cocoa in Cameroon
Cocoa was first introduced by the Germans in the Mount Fako Region of Cameron in 1886, with the express aim of securing cocoa supply for factories back in Germany. The French and British in turn continued to promote the export of cocoa to be turned into chocolate in Europe, and this approach has been followed by all Cameroon’s post independence politicians.
Cocoa now accounts for 5-10% of all Cameroon’s exports (it fluctuates by year depending on not just cocoa but also oil exports). And Cameroon is one of the worlds’ top 5 cocoa growing countries. Cocoa is also critical for the local economy. It’s the primary cash crop for over 75% of Cameroon’s rural population, with over a third of all agricultural land being used for cocoa.
However, the 280,000 tonnes of cocoa Cameron grows lags place it far behind its West African neighbours of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire (they respectively grow 4 and 10 times more cocoa than Cameroon). Unsurprisingly Cameroon (and various external agencies, including the EU) have made numerous efforts to increase cocoa growth, exports and processing. But these large, top down initiatives haven’t really worked.
Back in the 2010s, Cameroon announced plans to double the amount of cocoa it grows to over 600,000 tonnes. But Cameroon is nowhere near achieving this. A massive problem remains the lack of capital, investment and expertise. Over a quarter of all Cameroon’s cocoa trees are at least over 40 years old (cocoa trees can continue to grow fruit after this age, but rarely as effectively as younger trees). Infrastructure to harvest and transport cocoa is also lacking. There are few modern fermentation centres, and much drying is literally done on what roads there are in the jungle. The government has provided very little money for roads or diggers or trucks or warehouses. The farmers (who rarely have more than 1-5 hectares of farm land) also have no money for fertilisers or pesticides and so various cocoa diseases (mirids, brown and black pod etc.) are rife and can destroy 50% or more of the crop.
Consequently cocoa farming is shunned by most young Cameroonians. Whereas the average age in Cameroon is now 18, the average age of cocoa farmers in Cameroon varies between 63 and 70 (depending on the province).
Instead of cocoa, younger farmers prefer to grow crops like cassava and yams. Unlike cocoa, these crops do not grow well amongst other jungle plants and trees. Consequently, virgin rainforests are being cleared and replaced with monocultures of these crops. By contrast the heirloom trinitario cocoas that mainly grow in Cameroon thrive within, and indeed require, rainforest canopy. And the destruction of these cocoa trees, and rainforests, is disastrous for biodiversity and the environment overall.
Enter La Reine Astrid
And this is where the likes of Christophe, Marina and the Reine Astrid team offer some real hope and evidence of what focused, grass roots initiatives on growing high quality cocoa can do. In many ways what they’ve done is similar to speciality coffee.
In 2017 Christophe, with the support of the local Cameroonian government, established a cocoa co-operative in the village of N’Kog Ekogo. N’Kog Ekogo is a tiny village; it only has 75 families; but they’ve managed to triple the income of this village, and increase their sales (and harvests) of cocoa from 2 tonnes in 2018 to over 40 in 2020. These beans are not just used by La Reine Astrid, but also by local French chefs who, as Christophe proudly explains, are switching away from “industrial chocolate couverture” and instead crafting their own chocolate from these beans and thereby “re-energising local economies in villages that were almost deserted”.
Christophe has achieved this firstly by proving the potential of this cocoa by crafting some GREAT bars. And he’s heavily invested time, capital and resources into the co-op he established. He has helped finance a 150m local warehouse, whilst also investing in a cocoa school and garden. In 2019, Christophe sent out an agricultural engineer from France to set up a 2 hectare model of best practises that showcases, for example, how to plant cocoa amongst other rainforest trees along with shrubs that ward off insects, etc.
Above and beyond this, Christophe recognises the need to help the village “move up the cocoa value chain”. So he also invited a young Cameroonian to train in Paris for 8 months before sending him back to set up an artisanal, craft chocolate factory in N’Kog Ekogo. And they helped finance (along with Miss Cameroon) a project whereby 10 local young Cameroonians rebuilt a disused school (see Facebook for more on this Nyamoro project).
More on La Reine Astrid
If you’d like to see more details on La Reine Astrid, including an explanation of why the company is named after a Swedish/Belgian Queen (hint: She liked chocolate!), then please see their profile on the website. And you can also see more on some of Christophe’s other initiatives, including an inspiring story about the co-operative they work with in Haiti, that again provides a magnificent cause for hope.
But above all, we’d encourage you to try La Reine Astrid’s bars. They really show how grass roots initiatives offer real hope for West African cocoa through transparent trade and farming. It’s one small step. But to paraphrase the Chinese Proverb, and as Åkesson has shown in Madagascar, Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania and ABOFCA in Ghana, “all [cocoa] journeys start with a first step”.
Christophe is raising more funds to expand the factory in N’Kog Ekogo, and so we plan to support this by donating 10% of our sales of his bars in July to this initiative.
As ever, thank you for your support.
p.s. And just to show how Cameroon is becoming more popular amongst craft chocolate makers, we’ve also showcased a bar from Tauerchli made from a different co-operative in Cameroon.