Bitter-Sweet: A Review of Ryan’s Chocolate Nations

Think chocolate, think handy comfort food, the fail-proof gift option and essential ingredient of many a dessert. Whatever its personal value to us, chocolate has a strong appeal and many culinary and cultural uses around the world. But chocolate also has a dark underbelly.  This we learn from Noo Saro-Wiwa in her introspective review of Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa, a book by Orla Ryan that unwraps the political economy of chocolate, from the global barons of the cocoa commodity market to the family holdings at the lower rungs of this multi-billion dollar industry. Chocolate, it emerges, is bitter sweet, with a hidden world of misdeeds far closer to home than one would imagine.

To say I love chocolate is an understatement. I adore the stuff, and while caught in the rapture of a Twix or Snickers, it’s fair to say I’m not giving any thought as to how the product came to exist. The packaging will inform you that the confectionery contains glucose syrup and cocoa mass amongst other things, but what is not included in the list of ingredients are the toil and grit of human labour. And it is the long-suffering cocoa farmers of West Africa who are the partial subjects of Chocolate Nations, a fascinating and insightful account of the cultivation behind the chocolate industry, by journalist Orla Ryan.


Ryan recounts the origins of cocoa in Central America, where the Aztecs and pre-Olmec peoples used it for rituals, medicine and currency, as well as mixing it with chilli to form a bitter drink. For these indigenous Americans, cocoa possessed spiritual and magical qualities, and they (quite rightly) considered it the Food of the Gods. When the Spanish got hold of cocoa they brought it back to Europe where entrepreneurs such as the British Cadbury brothers experimented with the beans and created the formula for chocolate as we know it today. But Ryan doesn’t dwell on the American origins of cocoa – she is more interested in the cultivation of the crop in Africa after it was introduced by Europeans colonists.

We learn that the beans grow only in a narrow equatorial belt, chiefly Brazil, equatorial Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia. Cocoa is fragile and prone to Witches’ Broom, a disease that almost wiped out cultivation in the 1980s in Brazil, which was one of the largest producers in the world at the time. Production in the Americas has since declined significantly, while Malaysian cocoa plantations have given way to rubber plantations. Nigeria, although still the world’s fourth largest producer, has suffered a decline in its production since oil was discovered. Consequently, around half of all the world’s cocoa is now grown in just two countries: Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

TG_Chocolate-Nations_2It was to this region that Ryan, a commodity reporter, was dispatched to cover the cocoa markets for Reuters news agency. Reuters, she says, has no agenda other than to produce interesting and informative stories about the supply of cocoa. What begins as a detached investigation draws Ryan deeper into the story behind cocoa, which, she discovers, is deeply woven into the social, economic and political histories of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. In her bid to learn about the “hard economic end” of our “everyday luxury”, Ryan visits farmers, middlemen, manufacturers and politicians, and uncovers a story of exploitation, poverty, enrichment and structural traps, all of which she pieces together convincingly through numerous interviews, statistics and economic facts.

Cultivation is hard and labour-intensive. Each cocoa tree requires careful, individual attention, meaning that mechanised production is not entirely feasible. Cocoa is grown on family-run smallholdings where life is back-breaking and tough. Ryan’s description of a day in the life of a cocoa farmer will leave you feeling exhausted and grateful for the life you lead. Many families have no choice but to employ their children or other people’s children, who often work without pay and at the expense of their education.

However, growing and harvesting the cocoa is just the start of the battle. Ryan describes buyer’s cartels and corruption in the Ivorian cocoa marketing boards, and the redundancy of Fair Trade pricing. She also details cocoa’s role in Cote d’Ivoire’s civil unrest of 2002, which was sparked by disputes over ethnicity and farming land rights.

For me, the book’s most interesting revelation was the structural difficulty in creating a chocolate industry in Africa. Our economies are noted for their failure to transform raw materials into manufactured, exportable products. But cocoa is one area where this failure has some justification since it is genuinely difficult to create a refined chocolate industry on the continent. Chocolate needs to be stored and transported in cool temperatures, which is a major expense in tropical climates.

TG_Chocolate-Nations_1A prohibitive distribution environment in Western supermarkets doesn’t help matters either: Ryan interviews a small chocolate manufacturer in Ghana who recounts the hurdles he faces in securing shelf space for his product in Western retail outlets. Supermarket distribution is dominated by behemoth confectionery makers such as Nestle and Cadbury’s. No supermarket will refuse to stock a new bar from these large companies if it results in them withholding their more famous brands. Consequently, small chocolate manufacturers scarcely get a look-in.

Another barrier to chocolate manufacturing in Africa is the relatively low local demand for chocolate – Africans traditionally lack a major sweet tooth compared to other regions of the world. However, this picture is changing: in Nigeria, imports of chocolate have doubled since 2008. Local chocolate-producing firms such as Multi Trex are examining the possibility of manufacturing their own chocolate bars, and earlier in 2014 musicians from across the continent performed the song Cocoa na Chocolate as part of a larger campaign to develop Africa’s agricultural sector.

Cocoa farmers greatly need such development, especially in light of the fragile state of cocoa cultivation. West African plantations are getting old and ideally ought to be rested in order to regenerate. If the cocoa trees were to die or succumb to disease, global supplies would drop significantly, causing prices to rise even further (chocolate bars have already tripled in price since I was a teenager).

After reading this book, my guilty pleasure has become a lot guiltier, but I’m grateful to have gained the insight. Chocolate Nations brings home the fragility of cocoa and why we shouldn’t take its cultivation for granted. One day, this crop – a product considered an absolute necessity by many of us – may once again become the luxury it used to be. If ever I needed good reason to eat lots of chocolate now, this is it.


For the Keen & Curious
The Spectator’s Review of Looking for Transwonderland
Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa on Amazon
The Guardian UK Review of Ryan’s Chocolate Nations


About the Contributor

Noo Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria in 1976 and raised in England. Her first book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria was published by Granta in January 2012 to critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Dolman Travel Book Award 2013, and named The Sunday Times as Travel Book of the Year 2012. She currently lives in London.

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