Liberia courts premium markets to boost cocoa earnings

Liberian cocoa has a poor international reputation, but could it make headway in alternative markets driven by a growing market for high-quality, sustainably produced chocolate? The slicing and thump of pods falling from trees interrupts the stillness of a cocoa plantation in a remote part of Nimba County during harvest season. Most of the beans nestled inside the reddish pods will be sold to Monleh Enterprises, the country’s largest cocoa trader. Monleh’s CEO, Rachel Mulbah, runs a tight ship.

“Our tonnage always tops other agents selling to our local buyer,” Mulbah declares. “I never owe a partner. And now we’re chasing good quality, not just conventional cocoa.” Liberian cocoa has a poor international reputation due to a history of inconsistent quality, leading to automatic price penalties on the global market. Almost all Liberian cocoa is sold on the bulk market for use in the cosmetics industry.

The current market conditions give Liberian farmers little incentive to improve their post-harvest practices such as fermentation and drying of the beans – critical to quality and flavour – since their efforts do not reap better prices. With negligible national volumes, Liberia has been left trailing behind neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which together produce some two-thirds of the world’s cocoa. This is in spite of fertile soil and an optimal climate for growing the crop.

“Historically, Liberia has not done much to improve the value or volume of its cocoa exports,” says Robert Davis, a Liberian political economist. “Cocoa is of little commercial value, representing roughly 0.4% of GDP. Fundamental investment needs to be made from the bottom up for it to have any meaningful impact on the economy.”

A report published by the VOICE Network, which advocates reforming the cocoa sector to improve working conditions, states that the bulk cocoa market holds producers in a cycle of poverty, with less than 10% of farmers in Ghana – the world’s second largest producer – on or above the living income line. A joint attempt by Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to set a minimum price to improve farmers’ incomes has proven unsuccessful.

Growing awareness for alternatives. While the world’s largest bulk markets of Europe and the US are becoming increasingly saturated, premium cocoa markets are stable and growing. Buyers are prepared to pay more depending on cocoa bean quality, availability and its uniqueness in terms of both physical attributes and the context in which it was grown.

Liberian traders such as Rachel Mulbah are becoming aware of these alternative markets driven by a growing appetite in Europe and North America for high-quality dark chocolate that guarantees social and environmental sustainability in its production. Their awareness is thanks in large part to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI), an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the country that is the world’s largest importer of cocoa beans.

CBI has been providing support to buyers in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone since 2019 to enable them to competitively trade on the European market. As well as helping to improve cocoa bean quality, CBI has made introductions to European buyers and is assisting with branding to change the image of cocoa originating from the two countries. “The demand for better product is currently increasing by 10% per year,” says Jörn Berger, the CBI cocoa and chocolate expert leading the initiative in Liberia. “Liberia is disconnected from information and far from the market,” he continues. “Just by sharing information we can achieve a lot.”

The Liberia Cocoa Corporation (LCC) is a case in point. The company has been purchasing cocoa from farmers to supply the bulk market since 2009.  “I didn’t know about these buyers who focus just on fine flavour, and I certainly didn’t know how to link up with them,” recalls Lu Tolbert, LCC’s CEO. “Now I know these people exist we’re going to cater to them.” It shouldn’t be too hard. Quality concerns aside, Liberian cocoa possesses many of the characteristics that appeal to specialty buyers and set it apart from the neighbouring global giants.

Source: African Business

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