“Success exceeding all expectations”
In West Africa and Latin America, Chocolats Halba has launched several cultivation projects with a groundbreaking approach – farmers are planting cocoa there as part of a diverse mix of other arable crops on the same plot of land. Initial experiences are extremely encouraging. We visited our partner cooperative in Ecuador.
Three men tug at the manioc plant with all their strength until it finally budges and yields its thickened roots with a jolt. It is not only incredible to see how much strength is required to harvest the metre-tall plant, but also that it sits in the middle of a cocoa plantation
We are on a plot of land owned by local cocoa farmer Justino Andrés Pérez, known locally as Don Andrés. His small farm house lies in an area of wooded hills less than 100 kilometers from Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil. Today the sun is beating down, but in recent days, heavy rainfall has been pelting down on the red soil. You won’t get far without wellington boots.
Diversity that pays off
It is no accident that the freshly harvested manioc is among cocoa plants. Nor is it by chance that bananas, maize, beans, sweet potatoes and several young tropical timber trees are also growing side by side on this plot of land. This is a pilot plot for the Finca project launched by Chocolats Halba and its partners in mid-2015. It’s all about converting cocoa farming to dynamic agroforestry.
Don Andrés is one of the first farmers in the cooperative involved to have embarked on this unusual method of cultivation. He has also successfully qualified as a farming trainer, with the intention of passing on his knowledge to fellow farmers. “I was initially surprised how many different plants could be grown at the same time,” he concedes. Now he is profiting from this diversity.
Dynamic agroforestry is the mixed cultivation of different arable crops, fruit trees and timber trees on the same piece of land. “This method is particularly suitable for growing cocoa in the way that many small-scale farmers do round here,” explains Petra Heid, Head of Sustainability & Communication at Chocolats Halba. The biological diversity of the plantation improves the nutritional base and the income opportunities for farmers. “The fruit and vegetables that the farmers grow alongside the cocoa can either be eaten at home or sold at local markets.”
“I was initially surprised how many different plants could be grown at the same time”.
Justino Andrés Pérez Saninens, farming trainer of the UNOCACE cooperative
Don Andrés and two employees of cooperative UNOCACE work together to harvest a manioc plant. The manioc is growing side by side with bananas, timber trees and cocoa.
A welcome source of additional income: Apart from the cocoa, farmers can now also sell manioc and other food crops.
Cocoa trees benefit from mixed cultivation: there are less pests and diseases, soil fertility increases and taller trees provide enough shade.
Don Andrés increased his income by applying dynamic agroforestry. Now he shares his knowledge with other cocoa farmers.
Farmers can use manioc and other crops for home consumption or sell them on the market.
“With the new method, we have fewer failures”.
Margot Borja

The “dynamic agroforestry” principle

In harmony with nature
“After the first trial plots yielded good harvests within just a few months, the farmers were full of enthusiasm,” reports Heid. The young cocoa is growing considerably better than on conventionally farmed plantations, since the different species are mutually beneficial. By combining plants that grow at different speeds, income can be increased over the course of several years. The very slow-growing timber trees will eventually serve as a pension pot for producers.
“It’s a type of cultivation that’s in harmony with nature, and needs no artificial irrigation or fertilization,” adds Walter Yana from the Ecotop consultancy firm. “By constantly pruning and re-planting, the system is maintained in a dynamic development process.” Anything that is cut back from the plants and is not harvested is left to rot. So the ground does not dry out, and nutrients return to the soil in a natural cycle. Yana has been using this method of farming for over twenty years on his cocoa plantation in Bolivia. Chocolats Halba has engaged him as an expert to give his fellow farmers in Ecuador some initial help.

Proven collaboration

The UNOCACE cooperative was founded in southern Ecuador in 1999. One of its aims is to promote the cultivation of the traditional “Cacao Nacional Arriba” premium cocoa variety, which is optimally suited to local conditions. UNOCACE now has around 800 members and runs buying centers in twelve different regions, which purchase and process the freshly harvested cocoa from its members. Since 2013, Chocolats Halba has been working together with the cooperative and, based on this proven collaboration, has decided to implement one of its pilot projects for dynamic agroforestry here. Chocolats Halba has launched additional projects in Ghana and Honduras.

Deceptive monoculture
The tropical climate brings not only cloudbursts, but year-round temperatures of over 20 degrees as well. People sweat and need to wear wellington boots, but the cocoa tree loves these humid conditions. The plant originates from Latin America, so cocoa farming is widespread here. But despite this long tradition, small-scale farmers like Don Andrés – in Ecuador and elsewhere – are faced with a major problem: cocoa farming is scarcely worthwhile any more. And this is despite growing global demand for cocoa.
The problem is that, in recent decades, more and more farmers have been growing newly bred, supposedly higher-yield varieties as a monocrop. In Ecuador, it is primarily the CCN-51 variety that is grown on numerous plots of land. CCN-51 did initially generate higher yields, but diseases and pests soon became widespread and, over time, this variety depleted the soil. Farmers now have to water and fertilize their plantations, and treat them with pesticides. This forces them to spend so much money that farming is ultimately not worthwhile.
In monocultures, 30 to 40 percent of the cocoa crop is lost each year. Against this backdrop, there is an urgent need for approaches such as agroforestry. “With the new method, we have fewer failures,” reports Margot Borja, another farmer and trainer in the Finca project. She too lives with her family in a small farm in the middle of the forest. As a woman, she first had to gain recognition from the farmers. But since they have seen how deftly Margot can handle a chain saw, even men listen to her advice when they visit her farm.

Fine origin-specific chocolate from Ecuador

In 2016, Chocolats Halba sourced 273 tonnes of the organic and Fairtrade-certified cocoa variety “Cacao Nacional Arriba” and used it to create origin-specific chocolate. This dark specialty is characterized by a particularly intensive, long-lasting flavor, and is extremely popular with chocolate connoisseurs. Thanks to close collaboration with producers, Halba is able to secure the high quality of this raw material.

Good for the environment, better for farmers
“To date we have trained nine trainers, who together are looking after 160 farmers,” says Petra Heid. By the end of the project, this figure is set to rise to 15–20 trainers. To promote equal opportunities, Chocolats Halba specified that at least a quarter of those receiving training should be women. Three important actors support Chocolats Halba in reaching these targets: Coop is financing a large part of the project with its sustainability fund, the Swiss foundation “Swisscontact” contributes funds and project support and the consultancy “Ecotop” plays an important role in farmer trainings.
During the last year alone, the farmers involved have planted more than 80,000 high-quality cocoa seedlings, 2,625 crop plants and 1,046 timber trees. “The results so far have exceeded all expectations,” concludes Heid. “The farmers have been able to massively increase the number of annual crop plants, fruit trees and timber trees on their cocoa plots.” Most of them started off with a trial area of quarter of a hectare, which they rapidly expanded once they saw how successful the cultivation method was.
By the time the project comes to an end in late 2019, the plan is for 600 producers to be cultivating at least 1,000 hectares of cocoa plantations using dynamic agroforestry methods. In all probability, they will not only be harvesting exquisite organic cocoa, but also lots of fruit and vegetables – and sweat-inducing manioc.

The benefits of the Finca project

Ecological:

  • – Maintains soil fertility
  • – Greater biodiversity
  • – Stabilizes the water supply
  • – Robustness in the face of climate fluctuations
  • – Stores CO2 in trees and in the soil
  • – Natural pest control

Economic:

  • – Regeneration of old or neglected cocoa plantations
  • – High levels of cocoa production in the long term
  • – Secure incomes thanks to stable productivity
  • – Reduced risk thanks to diversification
  • – Increased and diversified self-sufficiency

Social:

  • – In-depth farm management knowledge
  • – Empowers communities
  • – Empowers women
  • – Better education and healthcare

Ecological:

  • – Maintains soil fertility
  • – Greater biodiversity
  • – Stabilizes the water supply
  • – Robustness in the face of climate fluctuations
  • – Stores CO2 in trees and in the soil
  • – Natural pest control

Economic:

  • – Regeneration of old or neglected cocoa plantations
  • – High levels of cocoa production in the long term
  • – Secure incomes thanks to stable productivity
  • – Reduced risk thanks to diversification
  • – Increased and diversified self-sufficiency

Social:

  • – In-depth farm management knowledge
  • – Empowers communities
  • – Empowers women
  • – Better education and healthcare
“I was initially surprised how many different plants could be grown at the same time”.
Justino Andrés Pérez Saninens, farming trainer of the UNOCACE cooperative
Don Andrés and two employees of cooperative UNOCACE work together to harvest a manioc plant. The manioc is growing side by side with bananas, timber trees and cocoa.
A welcome source of additional income: Apart from the cocoa, farmers can now also sell manioc and other food crops.
Cocoa trees benefit from mixed cultivation: there are less pests and diseases, soil fertility increases and taller trees provide enough shade.
Don Andrés increased his income by applying dynamic agroforestry. Now he shares his knowledge with other cocoa farmers.
Farmers can use manioc and other crops for home consumption or sell them on the market.
“With the new method, we have fewer failures”.
Margot Borja
By planting different sorts of crops, families can diversify their income and become more resilient to cocoa crop failure.
Plantains are one of the staple foods in Ecuador. On plantations where dynamic agroforestry methods are applied, they provide shade for the young cocoa trees.
Together with her husband, Don Andrés, Ana Jesus Lara cultivates around five hectares of land. Step by step, they are transforming their cocoa plantation according to the methods of dynamic agroforestry.
Chocolats Halba employees regularly visit the project and the participating farmers like Don Andrés and his family.