Cacao pods (fruits) on a tree
About three quarters of the world's cacao comes from West Africa, mostly Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast accounts for nearly half of the world's cacao beans. Indonesia, now produces about 25 percent. Nigeria and Ghana are also large producers. Brazil was once a large producer but its crop has been hurt by the witches broom fungus. It grows only about 5 percent of the world’s crop. Cacao is also grown in Cameroon Malaysia, and Pacific Islands like New Guinea and Vanuatu.

About 90 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in developing countries but they get only 4 percent of the money generated chocolate. One reason for this is that tariffs increase with each level of processing,. In the European Union producer pay a tariff of 0.5 percent on raw cocoa beans, 10 percent of value on semi-processed cocoa and even more than chocolate.

Books: “Chocolate: History. Culture and Heritage” edited by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro (Wiley, 2009); “ True History of Chocolate” by Sophie and Michael Coe, food historians (Thames & Hudson); “ Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” by Mort Rosenblum (North Point Press)

Websites and Resources: All About Chocolate ; Encyclopedia of Life Cacao Plant ; Chocolate and the Maya ; Chocolate Food of the Gods site ; Cacao Tree ; International Cocoa Organization (ICCO): ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Food of the Gods e-book ; Cadbury Chocolate: ; Hersey making Chocolate ; Production of Chocolate

World’s Top Cocoa Bean Producing Countries

World’s Top Producers of Cocoa Beans (the source of chocolate, 2020): 1) Côte d'Ivoire: 2200000 tonnes; 2) Ghana: 800000 tonnes; 3) Indonesia: 739483 tonnes; 4) Nigeria: 340163 tonnes; 5) Ecuador: 327903 tonnes; 6) Cameroon: 290000 tonnes; 7) Brazil: 269731 tonnes; 8) Sierra Leone: 193156 tonnes; 9) Peru: 160289 tonnes; 10) Dominican Republic: 77681 tonnes; 11) Colombia: 63416 tonnes; 12) Papua New Guinea: 38000 tonnes; 13) Uganda: 35000 tonnes; 14) Mexico: 29429 tonnes; 15) India: 26000 tonnes; 16) Venezuela: 20000 tonnes; 17) Haiti: 14942 tonnes; 18) Liberia: 14000 tonnes; 19) Guatemala: 12608 tonnes; 20) Madagascar: 12564 tonnes. [Source: FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization (U.N.), A tonne (or metric ton) is a metric unit of mass equivalent to 1,000 kilograms (kgs) or 2,204.6 pounds (lbs). A ton is an imperial unit of mass equivalent to 1,016.047 kg or 2,240 lbs.]

cacao tree
World’s Top Producers (in terms of value) of Cocoa Beans (2019): 1) Côte d'Ivoire: Int.$3207908,000 ; 2) Ghana: Int.$1194431,000 ; 3) Indonesia: Int.$1153637,000 ; 4) Nigeria: Int.$515246,000 ; 5) Ecuador: Int.$417440,000 ; 6) Cameroon: Int.$412025,000 ; 7) Brazil: Int.$381748,000 ; 8) Peru: Int.$200020,000 ; 9) Colombia: Int.$150321,000 ; 10) Dominican Republic: Int.$130908,000 ; 11) Papua New Guinea: Int.$67201,000 ; 12) Uganda: Int.$51503,000 ; 13) Mexico: Int.$41868,000 ; 14) India: Int.$35316,000 ; 15) Venezuela: Int.$35091,000 ; 16) Guinea: Int.$25519,000 ; 17) Haiti: Int.$24833,000 ; 18) Sierra Leone: Int.$21555,000 ; 19) Tanzania: Int.$19130,000 ; [An international dollar (Int.$) buys a comparable amount of goods in the cited country that a U.S. dollar would buy in the United States.]

Top cacao-producing countries in 2008: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons, FAO): 1) Côte d'Ivoire, 1055146 , 1370000; 2) Indonesia, 610568 , 792761; 3) Ghana, 539126 , 700000; 4) Nigeria, 385090 , 500000; 5) Brazil, 155599 , 202030; 6) Cameroon, 144433 , 187532; 7) Ecuador, 72627 , 94300; 8) Togo, 61614 , 80000; 9) Papua New Guinea, 37584 , 48800; 10) Colombia, 34457 , 44740; 11) Dominican Republic, 32466 , 42154; 12) Peru, 26188 , 34003; 13) Malaysia, 21530 , 27955; 14) Mexico, 21216 , 27548; 15) Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), 15755 , 20457; 16) Guinea, 10012 , 13000; 16) Uganda, 10012 , 13000; 18) Guatemala, 9093 , 11807; 19) India, 8133 , 10560; 20) Sierra Leone, 8086 , 10500;

World’s Top Cocoa Bean Exporting Countries

World’s Top Exporters of Cocoa Beans (2020): 1) Côte d'Ivoire: 1636378 tonnes; 2) Ghana: 520470 tonnes; 3) Ecuador: 323399 tonnes; 4) Cameroon: 312912 tonnes; 5) Belgium: 223497 tonnes; 6) Nigeria: 216676 tonnes; 7) Indonesia: 210634 tonnes; 8) Netherlands: 152655 tonnes; 9) Malaysia: 95556 tonnes; 10) Dominican Republic: 64685 tonnes; 11) Peru: 53685 tonnes; 12) Democratic Republic of the Congo: 47508 tonnes; 13) Uganda: 41273 tonnes; 14) Papua New Guinea: 36559 tonnes; 15) Sierra Leone: 20082 tonnes; 16) Guinea: 18878 tonnes; 17) Liberia: 15596 tonnes; 18) Madagascar: 12434 tonnes; 19) Germany: 12238 tonnes; 20) Venezuela: 12186 tonnes. [Source: FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization (U.N.),]

Cacao pod with beans inside
World’s Top Exporters (in value terms) of Cocoa Beans (2020): 1) Cote d’Ivoire: US$3927946,000; 2) Ghana: US$1311681,000; 3) Ecuador: US$816392,000; 4) Cameroon: US$680448,000; 5) Belgium: US$630626,000; 6) Nigeria: US$510816,000; 7) Netherlands: US$433541,000; 8) Malaysia: US$242992,000; 9) Dominican Republic: US$181164,000; 10) Peru: US$145747,000; 11) Uganda: US$99071,000; 12) Democratic Republic of the Congo: US$87274,000; 13) Papua New Guinea: US$83310,000; 14) Indonesia: US$75807,000; 15) Sierra Leone: US$43880,000; 16) Guinea: US$41313,000; 17) Germany: US$36215,000; 18) Liberia: US$33374,000; 19) United States: US$33195,000; 20) Venezuela: US$30094,000

The world’s seven leading exporter of cacao in 2002 were: 1) Brazil; 2) Indonesia; 3) Ghana, 4) Ivory Coast, 5) Cameroon, 6) Nigeria and 7) Ecuador. They each exported more than 50,000 tons in 2002.

Cacao Plants

Cacao come from tropical evergreen trees, sometimes with shocking pink leaves. The beans that are made into chocolate are found in ribbed pods that range in color from “dead oyster white through bright green and pumpkin yellow to deep red.” Although cacao plants can reach a height of 40 feet, most are only 20 to 25 feet tall. They thrive only between 18 degrees north and south — which some call the “twenty-twenty-zone” — of the equator at altitudes between 100 and 1,000 feet. Cacao trees can not tolerate tropical sun. The leaves turn way from the sun. The trees must be grown in the shade of other trees, usually under banana trees, palms or rubber plants.

The cacao bean pod grows in an unusual fashion right out of the trunk and branches of the cacao tree along with thousands of small white, pink or yellow waxy flowers with little discernable scent, The insects that pollinate these flowers — tiny midges — were only discovered in 1940. The juicy white pulp of the fruit of wild plants is eaten by forest animals who dispersed the seeds (the beans) throughout the forest.

One would think that with a product as important as chocolate at stake that the cacao plant would be intensively studied and scientist know everything there is to know — both genetically and otherwise — about it, especially with the modern tools available. But that is not the case. For example, it was long thought that most plants fell into three genetic groups but a study done by Mars and the U.S. Agriculture department found there 10 not three. The study suggests that divarication of cacao occurred in the Amazon as populations became separated by ancient ridges called paleoarches.

Cacao Pods

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Cacao beans
Each tree produces about 30 or so cacao pod which are about the size of a cantaloupe and the shape of acorn squash, an overgrown avocado or an American football. They are green when immature and turn various shades of yellow and red when they ripen. The tree produce the pods from about age four to 50. The leathery pod has a half-inch thick rind and contains 20 to 50 almond-shaped, kernel-like white or purple beans. They lie in five to eight rows in a sweet, pink, custard-like pulp inside the pod.

The pod has an white, inch-thick shell. Describing his sampling of a cacao seeds in pod after it was lopped off a trunk Bill Buford wrote in The New Yorker, “The inside was creamy wet. It smelled of honey and orange and perfume. This was the pulp surrounding the giant seeds. The seeds looked like wet white maggots. Nothing suggested chocolate . Bader stuck his fingers inside, pulled out some seeds, and tipped them into my hand, and I ate them. They had a slimy, sweet zing, more liquid than substance, and as I rubbed them against the roof of my mouth the pulp disintegrated. I was left with four seeds’still a mouthful. I bit one gently. I was bitter, awful. I spit out.”

Burford wrote the pods and seeds in nature seem to be designed so that animals break open the pod and consume the pulp and nectar and spit out the seeds on the forest floor, where they can sprout as plants. No known creatures likes the seeds, the source of chocolate.

The nectar found inside the pods is called “miel de cacao”, “the honey of cacao.” In some cacao-growing areas it is consumed as drink. Buford said it “had the same bright citrus flavor that make the pulp so striking...I identified acidity and sugar, I thought of grapefruit, qualities associated with a sun-ripened fruit.”

Criollo, Forestero, and Trinitario Beans

There are several species of cacao plants. The most flavorful ones — criollo (meaning “native”) — are grown mostly in Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and a few Caribbean islands. Criollo pods range in color from yellow to ruddy orange and are often furrowed and richly textured. The beans look like fat brown almonds; contain insides that appear almost white; and have a nutty, buttery flavor. They are less bitter than other cacao beans and thus need less processing to bring out their flavor. Criollos trees are regarded as finicky and low-yielding and thus are not favored by farmers.

Trinitario beans come from a hybrid developed from the criollo plant. Known as flavor beans, they are prized by chocolate connoisseurs and are cultivated in modest quantities in the Caribbean, Venezuela and parts of central Africa and Southeast Asia. They make up about 5 percent of the world’s crop.

Most of the world's beans are forestero beans, which have less flavor, are more bitter but come from hardier plants Grown mostly in Brazil and Africa, they were created from the same lower Amazon criollo plants that produced trinitarios. They became the bean of choice when processing made it possible to get rid of the bitter flavor.

cocoa bean producers

Most chocolate bars are made exclusively with forestero beans or forestero beans with a small percentage of criollo or more likely trinitario thrown in for flavoring. The finest quality of criollo are called porcelana. The taste of beans often varies from place to place. Venezuelan beans are said to have a spicy, nutty flavor while Ecuadoran beans have a more floral aroma.

Venezuelan criollo beans found along the Venezuelan coast near Choroni around 30 kilometers west of Caracas are regarded as the essential ingredient to the world’s best chocolates. “Criollo” is a blonde-brown variety of cacao bean. “Criollo” is Spanish for the “native.” Until the 19th century, Venezuela produced solely criollo beans . Then a nasty disease struck, wiping out all the cacao in neighboring Trinidad. Fearful that disease would wipe them out most Venezuela farmers crossbred their criollos with lesser but tougher cacao plants and criollo was all but lost. In recent years there has been an effort to bring back criollo beans as demand for fine chocolate increases around the globe.

Cacao Cultivation

Cacao is grown mostly in the shade of large trees on small plots by small farmers rather than on huge plantations. About 90 percent of all the world cacao farmers work farms that are 25 acres or less. Much of it behind stilted houses in backyard jungles with other crops. In cacao growing areas almost every yard has a 'barbecue platform' used to dry cacao beans in the sun. Each has a sliding roof which shelters the beans when it rains.

Cacao is often grown with other crops such as oil palms, rubber trees, mahogany and other timber trees as well as fruit trees such as avocado, breadfruit, guava, mango, orange and coconut. Around the cacao trees bananas, and shade-tolerate vegetables and herbs can be grown.

Farmers have traditionally cleared an area of forest with all but the tallest canopy trees, which provide the shade the plants need.. Banana trees are often planted for additional shade for the young cacao plants and for income and food for the farmers. With luck a grove of cacao trees will produce 50 to 60 pods per tree per year for 25 to 30 years. Eventually pests, pathogens and soil exhaustion cause yields to decline and another patch of forest has to be cleared.

Cacao farming requires patience. After planting saplings one has to wait for the trees to mature. It takes about six years for the slow-growing cacao trees to bear fruit and up to a decade for money to be made. Pods take six months to mature and they are constantly sprouting out of the tree, which means they can be harvested year round.

Cacao is one of the world’s most labor-intensive crops. Much of the work is done by hand on daily basis, which doesn’t lend itself to plantation agriculture. The flowers are often pollinated by hand, defective pods are removed to allow the plant to put more energy into good ones.

World distribution map of cacao species

Methods of Cacao Agriculture

“Cabruca” refers to a way of cultivating wild cacao trees in the forest by thinning out the understory — trunks, dwarf palms, vines — and planting in clear spaces under the protective canopy. It is a way of farming in the rainforest that keeps the rainforest essentially intact.

In West Africa most cacao is cultivated using the “pioneer” methods that contrasts markedly from the cabruca method. The trees are planted close together on plantations without shade. The trees are carefully managed and mechanically irrigated. Under the direct sunlight the trees became superproductive. In many cases the farms become quickly exhausted but land is not expensive and its is to start anew. With abundant cheap labor the means the beans are also cheap. Problems include “black pod rot,” which can spread very quickly because the trees are so close together; a dependance on fertilizers and pesticides; and accusations of child labor and slavery.

Plantation agriculture with fertilizer and pesticides was tried without success in Malaysia. In the early 1990s, 750,000 acres was devoted to cacao. Ultimately large scale cacao farming proved to be a unprofitable. Now Malaysia has only around 125,000 acres of cacao under cultivation and most of that is on small farms.

Harvesting Cacao

The pods are harvested by hand with poles and machetes. Often they are cut down a few days before they are ripe to keep animals and pest from getting them first.

The harvested fruit is cut open with machetes and the seeds are scooped out by hand. The seeds placed in fermentation boxes and covered with banana leaves for three or four days, One producer said, “technology-wise, we haven’t left the 18th century. It is a process than cannot be industrialized.”

Describing the opening of the pods Bill Buford wrote in The New Yorker, “We found four men sitting on the ground, surrounded by yellow fruits, thwacking them rhythmically with their machetes, digging out pulp and tossing the empty pods to the side. The pulp was heaped into a white, gooey mud, and a viscous liquid trickled down into a receptacle.”

Cacao and the Environment

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harvesting the beans from a pod
Some environmentalists oppose cacao cultivation because it leads to destruction of the rain forest. Others support it, arguing it is a more positive alternative than clearing the rain forest and is much less destructive than slash-and-burn agriculture, clear cut logging or cattle farming.

Cacao is a relatively environmentally friendly crops. It often grown in the shade of rain forest trees. Many animals that live in rain forest thrive in cacao growing areas. Other crops, such as bananas and plantains, are grown and they provide food for local people, nutrients for the soil and prevent erosion. Cacao farms have greater biodiversity than other farms. In 1996, a new bird species was discovered on a cacao farm in Brazil.

From an environmentalist point of view, cacao should be grown under a thick cover of trees that not only provide shade but also provide leaves and detritus that supply enough nutrients to the soil for the cacao trees to live off of. But this is rarely the case. Fertilizers and sun help the crops grow faster and produce more beans.

Some chocolate companies have taken up the cause of sustainable cacao farming. M&M/Mars is working with officials in Brazil to create farms that resemble mature rain forest with an upper canopy, understory and ground shrubs and trees that can be harvested for timber and fruit trees and herbs that can produce products for sale in local markets.

Problems with Cacao

Cacao is a risky cash crop. The plants take 15 years to mature and substantial investments of time and money. Even then yields are very unpredictable. Heavy flowering trees sometimes produce very little.” One farmer told National Geographic, “We never whether we will get 50,00 pounds or 200,000 pounds from the same plot."

Cacao is more vulnerable to pests and disease than other crops. The problem has become so severe that representatives from Mars, Cadbury, Nestlé and Hershey have met with environmentalists to work out a strategy to save the crop. Scientists predict that there could be a major shortage of cocoa beans in as little as 5 to 10 years.

Cocoa farms are becoming increasingly vulnerable to fungal diseases and insects. Cocoa plantations in Costa Rica have been devastated by frosty pod rot. Caused by the monilia a fungus, it rots the pods by covering them with a “spore-spewing bloom.” West Africa has been hit by an insect called a capsid that has a stylet like a hypodermic spring that sucks nutrients out of the cacao plant. There are also problems there with black pod disease. Related to the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine, it infects the pods, stems, roots and leaves and destroys an estimated 500,000 tons of cacao beans a year. Frequent harvesting of the beans can slow the disease’s spreading

In some places the invasion of peasant farmers is the greatest threat. In some cases they simply climb over fences, move in and chop down cacao trees and plant bananas.

Witches Broom

healthy cocoa tree leaves
The Bahia region in northeast Brazil has been devastated by witches broom, a fungal disease that causes the foliage at the top of the cacao tree to shrivel and the fruit to spoil. The name refers to way the top of the desiccated trees look after the fungus has sucked out much of their moisture. A single mushroom for the fungus can produce 80 million spores. No methods exist to control its spread.

Witches broom destroys 275,000 tons of cacao beans a year. Since it first appeared in 1989 it has resulted in the loss of 250,000 farm jobs and $1 billion in annual exports. No one knows how it first arrived in Brazil. Some have speculated that it was placed there by conspirators intent on ruining Brazil’s cacao crop.

Witches broom often strikes just before the pods are to be harvested, shrinking the pods overnight. After it appears it spreads with alarming speed. In its second year in Bahia, 10 million trees were infected, half the harvest rotted and was thrown away. By the fifth year it had reached 45 million trees, 80 percent of everything that had been planted. People committed suicide, farmers were abandoned. Businesses went bust. Over 150,000 people lost their jobs and had no other option and were forced to scavenge manioc root to survive.

Witches broom affects mostly forestero plants. There are great concerns about what would happen if it crossed the Atlantic and infected plants in Africa. Roadblocks are set up on the border of Bahia to make sure the fungus doesn’t spread. Scientists are busy cross breeding cacao plants and studying their genes to help create plants resistant to the fungus.

Cacao and Chocolate Trade

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The chocolate confectionary business is worth $8.6 billion in the United States alone. In addition to chocolate the industry consumes 40 percent of the U.S. dairy production, 20 percent of its peanuts and 40 percent of its almonds.

About 3 million tons of cacao beans were produced in fiscal year 1999-2000. Prices rise and fall with production. The price of cocoa surged in 1999 due to strong demand and disappointing crops. In the early 2000s, cacao prices were at a 50 year low as a result of overproduction in Africa and east Asia. Production is threatened by diseases and lack of good land for growing the plants. In 2002, prices rose to an 18 year high of $2,500 per metric ton, partly as a result of fighting in Ivory Coast.

As is the case with coffee, cacao isn’t very profitable for farmers. Most of the profits from the sale of chocolate products are made by chocolate companies. A hectare of cacao is worth $421, compared to $2,250 for coffee. In some places farmers are trying to organize cooperatives so they can negotiate higher prices from middlemen. Some chocolate companies have adopted the fair trade doctrine and are paying farmers above market prices and using some of their profits for community development. But this is rare. In some places farmers make so little money they have turned from cocoa to raising more profitable crops like coca (used for making cocaine).

The price of cacao nearly doubled in 2008.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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