São Tomé, and its sister island Príncipe, were once the biggest producers of cocoa in the world – but over the last half century cocoa farming there collapsed. Today, the farmers of São Tomé are working to regenerate the country’s reputation, but this time with a focus on quality cocoa rather than just quantity.
Now São Tomé is producing and selling a superior crop of beans, much of which is certified both organic and Fairtrade, commanding a premium on world markets. Farmers have organised themselves into co-operatives and have developed a shared pride in the excellence of the cocoa they grow.
Spending time with the members of the CECAQ-11 co-operative we saw and heard evidence of this pride every day. Cocoa growing, especially on the steep slopes of the island, is a labour intensive affair, but these farmers can see the benefit of being more meticulous and skilled in how they manage their farms. They have been trained in better pruning methods, in shade management (cocoa grows best in the humid shade of the rainforest canopy), and in grafting seedlings to combine quality with higher productivity.
The farmers are developing their own improved version of amelonado, a sub-species of forastero, that delivers a distinctive depth of flavour with woody, spicy notes. Their care with harvesting, natural fermenting and drying ensure they are extracting the best from their beans, while the new techniques they are learning will help with the increased productivity they urgently need to meet demand, and grow their income.