Scientists have uncovered evidence suggesting humans first started consuming chocolate in one form or another 5,000 years ago in the small South American country of Ecuador. Perhaps it is no surprise then that today Ecuador is the world’s biggest producer of “fine” or “flavored” cacao, used by chocolate masters and high-end brands.
Although fine beans now only make up about 5% of the world’s total cacao production, Ecuador holds about 65% of this market. It is also the biggest overall cacao producer in South America, with 270,000 tonnes forecast in 2017/18 - almost as much as the rest of the continent combined, according to the International Cocoa Organization.
So, what makes it so perfect for growing cocoa?
As its name suggests, the country is right on the equatorial line, meaning it benefits from a humid tropical climate with regular rains and short dry seasons - perfect for cacao trees.
“Ecuador has a unique climatic situation,” says Carl Schweizer, Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer at premium chocolate company To’ak, which sources all of its beans from farmers in one valley in Ecuador. “The country is the origin of the cacao plant, so we know cacao is happy there. The El Niño [a warm marine current that comes from the north] and Humboldt [a cold current from the south] meet each other here and it creates a really stable climate all year round.”
Ecuador also has many volcanoes, which over time have created rich, nutritious soils, adds Mr Schweizer. The results speak for themselves - the country picked up almost 20 awards at the International Chocolate Championships in 2017.
A world of chocolate
Ecuador may be the biggest producer of fine cacao beans, but world production is now dominated by “plain” or “bulk” beans as consumption focuses away from fine chocolate towards a more commercially driven product.
Globally, we eat almost 8m tonnes of chocolate a year, with the Swiss gobbling the most per person at 8.8kg, according to The Statistics Portal, which analysis large data sets.
Ninety percent of the world’s beans are grown by about 6 million small family farms and only a small percentage of these are certified fair-trade, according to the Fairtrade Foundation.
As a global commodity, cocoa prices are very volatile, and many small producers suffer from poverty. Many have never even tried chocolate.
World cacao production is about 4.6m tonnes annually, with African countries producing more than 70% of this.
Cacao is produced in countries 10 degrees north and south of the equator.
Côte d’Ivoire is by far the world’s biggest producer, with forecasts for 2017/18 currently at 2m tonnes - almost half of world production.
Top producing countries by volume (2017/18):
1. Côte d’Ivoire - 2m tonnes
2. Ghana - 880,000 tonnes
3. Ecuador and Indonesia - 260,000 tonnes each
4. Cameroon and Nigeria - 240,000 tonnes
5. Brazil - 170,000 tonnes