By Chanelle Leclerc
How is ceremonial cacao produced in Guatemala linked to cacao in Africa? When talking about fair trade dynamics, we have to understand the social and environmental issues encountered globally, especially in Africa.
What a fortunate coincidence that, upon my return to France, I discovered Samy Manga and his book 'Chocolaté, le goût amer de la culture du cacao.' Spending a few days in the shoes of Abena, the book's main character who grew up in his grandfather's cacao plantation in Africa, allowed me to feel the reality of African lands and understand the truth behind the culture of the medicine we love so much.
We met at the Climate Academy in Paris where he was a speaker at a round table discussion on southern countries in the ecological transition. I found an inspiring activist, grounded in his speech, advocating for a fair and responsible cacao agriculture in Africa.
I couldn't resist the idea of giving him the microphone to share all these common concerns we had about the global exploitation of cacao. So, it is at La Recyclerie, a place promoting sustainable consumption, that I rediscovered him to provide you with an enlightening perspective on cacao agriculture... from Guatemala to Cameroon.
An interview with Samy Manga
By Chanelle Leclerc
Chanelle: Hello, Samy. It's a real pleasure to see you again today to talk about cacao, a topic we're both passionate about. You recently published a book titled "Chocolaté: The Bitter Taste of Cacao Culture," and I'd like us to have a conversation about it.
Could you start by introducing yourself?
Samy: Hello, Chanelle. I'm Samy Manga, originally from Cameroon. I'm a writer, ethno-musician, and eco-activist. I'm also the founder of the Association of Eco-Poets of Cameroon, an organization that has decided to use artistic creativity in favor of ecology and biodiversity. I live in Lausanne, Switzerland, where I am the artistic director of a cultural space called Art Vive Projet.
C: Thank you. Now, your book largely addresses the realities of cacao plantations in Cameroon, your home country. Growing up between cacao plantations, what kind of realities did you witness? What motivated you to publish this book?
S: I come from the village where I grew up and completed all my primary education, about 50 km from Yaoundé, where cacao culture was already deeply rooted. Like all young people, I was involuntarily involved in this culture. I spent my entire childhood in the plantations, alongside my grandfather, who was also a cacao producer, as were most parents in Africa. As I grew up, I started asking questions because I didn't really understand why so many people were involved in this cultivation. It's important to note that cacao is not a food we consumed directly. We didn't make sauce or couscous with it. The Cacao culture had been imposed on us.
In 1997, something significant happened. When I was already in the city pursuing my secondary education, I tasted chocolate for the first time. A woman in a Mercedes splashed us with her car and apologized by giving us a box of chocolate and a small bill. Upon opening the box, we saw a candy we had never heard of. We were amazed by the explosion of flavors and the taste of this food. Later, we were told it was chocolate, and its raw material was what was grown in our villages. That's when I realized we never saw the fruits that turned into this food. This awareness made me angry and raised many more questions.
In 2018, I decided to tell this story and the challenges I faced as a child. I began researching and writing reports because I was determined to publish a book. All driven by the same reason: I felt it was necessary to raise awareness. There are people who are unaware of the working conditions and exploitation behind cacao farming and chocolate production. It was important for me to convey this reality to consumers.
Furthermore, in 2020 alone, the chocolate industry generated 100 billion dollars. Of those 100 billion dollars, the producing countries received only 6%. And in the end, what reached the growers represented only 2%. This has serious implications both economically and environmentally.
Also in 2020, when I arrived in Switzerland, one of the world's largest chocolate consumers, the manuscript was almost ready.
We, in Africa, only provided cacao beans to Western countries without consuming them ourselves. There are cacao producers in Africa who, after 50 years of cacao cultivation, have never tasted a chocolate bar.
C: Can you tell us more about how cacao arrived in Africa?
S: Historically, cacao was discovered in the Maya and Aztec cultures in Mesoamerica, where it had a deep spiritual and mystical significance. It wasn't an overproduced or overconsumed food. In fact, it was usually consumed by initiates or during sacred rituals to meet spiritual and bodily therapeutic needs, to celebrate important figures in society, or to give thanks for the harvest. It was a food consumed on quite specific occasions. However, explorers took cacao to France in the 15th century, where its transformation evolved from the artisanal form used by the Maya and Aztecs. It was there that it was experimented with until it became a paste, and later, milk was added to turn it into chocolate. This led to a surge in its consumption.
Later on, a queen of Austria, on the occasion of one of her weddings, offered this preparation to the royal court. This turned chocolate into an imperial food for high society. From that moment until today, there have been very expensive chocolate brands, and thus, less accessible.
It was from France, then, that cacao was exported to Africa through colonization, where its cultivation was imposed on African countries because the climate and environment were favorable. We, in Africa, only provided cacao beans to Western countries without consuming it ourselves.
C: And you don't even eat the fruit? Because it's delicious! You can peel it and make refreshing drinks from it. Guatemalans use it in some traditional dishes, like Mole Plátano. They make it with plantains, cacao paste, and spices.
S: In Africa, we taste and suck on cacao beans. We even produce a very sweet juice that we store and sometimes ferment. But we don't consider it a family food. That's the difference between growers in South America and Africa. The cacao culture was imposed on Africa. The colonizers weren't interested in us knowing how to produce and transform it. The plant was unknown on the continent. The relationship with cacao was purely economic. There are producers in Africa who, after 50 years of cacao cultivation, have never tasted a chocolate bar.
In contrast, in Guatemala and other South American countries, they have traditional methods passed down through generations for consuming it. They know how to cook with it, just as we know what to do with other foods. For example, we collect peanuts, roast them, boil the seeds, let them dry, and grind them to make sauces.
The consumption of a food is rooted in the culture.
C: Produce and that's it. It seems incredible, really. I will always remember when we walked for an hour and a half in the jungle with the Cacao Source team to meet one of our producers in northern Guatemala, in the Lanquín region. There, Crisanto and his family welcomed us to share a meal. At the end of dinner, they gave us a hot cacao drink that was unfamiliar to us. It was actually sugar cane-sweetened water with a fine-cut cacao paste floating in it. What was most interesting was the story Crisanto shared with us. He explained that cacao floats on the surface because it facilitates a connection with the spiritual and divine world, allowing for more connections and harmony in the community. I found it very impactful to visit a producer who could share this small ancestral and symbolic story with us. I know he will continue to pass it on, but unfortunately, this wisdom is largely lost in Guatemala. The women's collectives that Cacao Source works with have also lost touch with this spiritual connection due to the arrival of evangelism with the conquerors in the 16th century. This evangelization deeply affected Mayan and indigenous cultures and, therefore, the preservation of their ancestral knowledge.
C: We haven't talked much about the chocolate industry and the role of major corporations. It seems that there are significant chocolate companies facing lawsuits regarding child labor in Africa, not to mention massive deforestation. In the realm of committed actors, is anyone attempting to reinvent fair and responsible cacao?
S: Yes, I believe that today, in the face of the reality of climate change, that is the key question: What are the solutions?
First and foremost, I believe that political awareness is needed because it's the governments that can establish economic and agricultural policies in favor of the communities. We must bear in mind that we're talking about the survival of the human species, and for this purpose, we need to regulate our entire system of consumption and production. We need to regulate the consumption and production of automobiles, mobile phones, clothing, and also our food. And products like cacao and chocolate come into this realm of regulation.
From a climate change perspective, cacao is at the root of significant deforestation. In Ivory Coast, over 80% of its forest cover has already disappeared. It's not normal that this percentage is due to a monoculture. We're not even talking about coffee, cotton, or animal husbandry... This situation is repeated in countries like Ghana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, and Gabon.
Additionally, there's child labor contributing to this situation, with children voluntarily participating in family efforts, and the meager remuneration of the cacao producers, which, in my opinion, is akin to a form of colonialism close to slavery.
There are already initiatives for change. For instance, the Chocolatiers Engagés recently invited me to their general assembly to contemplate equitable cacao production. They go to the plantations and bring chocolate to villages to show young people the opportunity to train in the chocolate industry. That is beautiful. What Cacao Source does, through more therapeutic workshops and their equitable model, is what's needed. If we bring about equity through initiatives, we can also influence politicians and corporations.
C: And I find that there's a significant disparity between what's generated, what's consumed, and what's redistributed. When we consider that the average annual chocolate consumption for a Swiss or a French person is 11 kg and we understand all the climatic and social issues this consumption entails, we realize we can't turn a blind eye to this problem.
It's interesting that these young people can finally work with cacao and transform it. But, most importantly, that all transformation costs are reinvested in the local economy and stay in the country. We do this as well through Cacao Source. Since everything is processed in Guatemala, all the money goes back into the local economy (the wages involved in the production process, the packaging, etc.). In many other cases, chocolatiers buy the beans directly from countries like Guatemala or Cameroon and then export them to process them in their developed countries. This significantly increases production costs and, ultimately, the price of a chocolate bar.
From a climate change perspective, cacao is at the root of significant deforestation.
In Ivory Coast, the world's leading cacao producer, over 80% of its forest cover has already disappeared due to cacao monoculture.
It's also important to note that Ivory Coast isn't a wealthy country, which is highly contradictory within an industry that generates over 100 billion dollars annually.
C: Since you grew up in cacao plantations and helped with your grandfather's business, did you feel that from one year to another, they were able to produce more or become wealthier?
S: In my book, there's a little poem where the grandfather tells Abena: "White people's money is like the devil's money. White people's money always returns to their country and always goes back to white people." This illustrates the mystery of cacao's economic returns. The promotion of cacao culture was the possibility of getting rich through its production, along with the country and community's development. And indeed, being a cacao producer, even without taking much care of your plantation, you're guaranteed that at least twice a year, you'll harvest something. But over time, despite this economic guarantee, people didn't escape poverty. This is reflected even at the national level. It can't be said that Ivory Coast, the world's leading cacao producer, is a rich country, which is very contradictory.
In Cameroon, when you manage to sell your harvest, you reinvest all the money where you took credits, in healthcare, or whatever else. Then at some point, you start working on the fields to prepare for the next harvest season. In the end, it's an infernal cycle where people don't necessarily become wealthy enough to move away from cacao. To some extent, this establishes a dependency.
And, anyway, no matter what you produce, you always obey those who set the prices. Sometimes you sell with a small margin of profit, and other times, you're cornered to sell at the price they set because you must move your production at all costs. And you're never bought at a dignified price. For example, they buy your cacao at 1.50 €/kg while a 100g chocolate bar is sold for 5 or 6 €. If they were to buy a kilo of cacao at 5 €/kg, after 5 or 10 years, as a producer, you might have saved something. But that's not what happens.
C: This will be my last question, and we will conclude the interview. Let's invoke the magician within you. If you, Samy, had a magic wand, what would you do for the cacao culture?
S: I would like to see cacao consumption based on its spiritual and medicinal qualities, in which we truly focus on the intimate and spiritual connection with it. We would bring cacao and chocolate to specific and sacred occasions. Cacao is a wonderful plant, and we would share it in moments of connection with ourselves and with others.
C: Thank you, Samy. It's been a great honor to have you.
S: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
I would like to see cacao consumption based on its spiritual and medicinal qualities, where we truly focus on the intimate and spiritual connection with it. Cacao is a wonderful plant, and we would share it in moments of connection with ourselves and with others.
I am very happy to have been able to share the results of this meeting with you. Thanks to Samy and his enlightening stories, his determination to unite all the forces aimed at amplifying our impact on the global cocoa farming community, and for a conscious and nutritious consumption of this delicate dish. I highly recommend the reading of his book filled with real and lived facts, and illustrated by his artistic hands.