‘Made in Cote d’Ivoire’ chocolatier puts women at centre of his cocoa revolution

·6 min read

Cote d’Ivoire’s premium chocolate maker Axel Emmanuel Gbaou saw a major problem in the country’s cocoa industry – the farmers live in poverty, their wives were not involved and so farmers’ children weren’t going to school. He set about revolutionising the sector.

Gbaou speaks with passion about his company, Le Chocolatier Ivorien (the Ivorian Chocolate maker), but also about how women – especially the the wives of cocoa farmers who he’s trained – are part of his growing business.

“There’s many middlemen in the process, so the farmers live in poverty. Throughout the country, they buy one kilo of raw cocoa beans for one euro. It’s not a fair price,” he says.

Seventy percent of all cocoa beans worldwide come from Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana, yet cocoa farmers barely scrape by, as some families cannot even make the global baseline of $1.90/per day.

Instead of selling unprocessed beans for one euro/kilo, Gbaou decided to train farmers’ wives so that they can charge more for the processed product. He’s created a processing programme and has trained 2000 women since 2016.

He calls this revitalisation of the industry the "cocoa revolution".

“I add value in the village, and I also train these women to be entrepreneurs and have a better life than before,” he says, adding that they are now part of the value chain.

“When the cocoa money came in at the end of the month, it would go in the pocket of the husband. But now, the women have money and they can take care of the family. They’re now entrepreneurs,” says Gbaou.

“They aren’t my employees, they’re my partners,” he adds.

Why women? He says women are very organised because many are mothers and don't have a lot of time to get things done, he says.

"In the past, I tried to train young men and women, and it didn’t work,” he tells RFI on the sidelines of the COP15 conference in Abidjan.

A multi-step process

Not all beans are high-quality enough for chocolate, says Gbaou. Some are good enough only to make cocoa butter, used in cosmetics for skin and hair. He instructs the women in how to select premium cocoa beans, then, how to roast them for chocolate production.

“You need to roast at a good temperature so you don’t burn the bean, and so it’s crispy,” he says.

Next, cocoa butter extraction.

“In each bean, 55 percent is cocoa butter. There’s lots of fat. After extracting it, I show them how to crush it to have a good cocoa paste and then add the sugar,” he says.

At this point, Gbaou will buy the high-quality processed cocoa butter for 15 euros/kilo. The roasted cocoa bean is five euros/kilo, a jump from unprocessed cocoa beans at one euro/kilo, he says.

“Selling the bean is not the solution; you have to process, not all, but a little bit, and this will change the economy,” he says.

He hopes that by helping to revitalise the industry, it will attract more young people; the average age of an Ivorian cocoa farmer is 55, and life expectancy in the West African country is 58 years.

“Their children don’t want to be cocoa growers because of the suffering of the parents. If they die, there is no one to take over the cocoa farm, and cocoa will disappear, according to experts,” he says.

Regional flavours

The chocolate intensity and flavour depends on which of the seven regions it grows in throughout the country, according to Gbaou.

“The cocoa that grows in the mountains, some 600km from Abidjan, there’s a lot of iron and magnesium, because it grows at high altitude. The flavour is very intense,” he says.

He also sources cocoa from Azaguié, the rainiest town in Cote d’Ivoire, just an hour from Abidjan.

The West African country receives 800mm of rain per year throughout the country, but Azaguié receives twice that amount.

“It rains every day at 4pm. Rain is good for cocoa, The beans here are a lot bigger,” says Gbaou, adding, “there’s more fat and cocoa butter inside, so the chocolate will be very fluid and smoother in your mouth, less bitter.”

Banking background to bon chocolat

Gbaou’s dedication to his country’s most famous export didn't kick off from birth. After a masters degree in taxation, he started out in banking, where he saw "numbers you couldn't even imagine" changing hands over cocoa.

And yet, there were no Ivorian chocolate bars in supermarkets or even at the airport.

“I thought this was totally absurd and I had to rise to this challenge,” he says with a smile.

Taking a big risk and quitting his job, Gbaou embarked on an intensive pastry training for six months at Abidjan’s biggest hotel, the Hotel du Golfe.

His talent and drive paid off: he won first prize in the Cote d’Ivoire chocolate and pastry competition and second place in chocolate and pastry on the African continent in 2014.

We’re in airports, we’re in supermarkets, and I also do chocolates for Air France, in 6 countries in Africa. Before Covid-19, we delivered our chocolates to 12 airplanes per month,” he says.

Le Chocolatier Ivoiren currently makes 10,000 chocolate bars per month. Many customers buy through his online shop, where there are 100 flavours of chocolate to choose from. And all the chocolate sourced from cooperatives such as Cooperative de Belier – which employs many of the women he's trained – is certified fair trade and organic.

As well as teaching his fellow countrywomen the art of making cocoa paste, he has already trained women in Cameroon and is slated to train women Congo-Brazzaville.

School fees and motorcycles

With money in their pocket, these women enjoy more economic freedom, buying motorcycles and paying their children’s school fees.

“Some women are really happy,” he says, telling the story about a woman in Tumodi, a city 200km from Abidjan, who creates her own chocolate sauce to drizzle over donuts, which she sells outside the city’s secondary school.

“Every day she calls me to say she's earned 10 euros/day, in three hours,” he says, adding that she is out there five days a week.

Gbaou admits that sometimes his business is affected by his own revolution, as people come from Paris and other markets to buy the women’s premium cocoa butter.

“I’m glad they have some buyers, but sometimes in some cooperatives I go and ask for 50kg of roasted cocoa beans and they say: “All is finished!” The people have already bought it, so I have to wait now!”, he laughs.

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