The main ingredient of chocolate is cocoa beans. Originally from what’s now called Ecuador in South America the cocoa bean slowly traveled north over the American Continent and became famous for its use in Maya and Aztec ceremonies. Easy access to cheap labor coupled with imperial pressures from Europe caused the cocoa cultivation to move in the 19th century from the America continent to Africa.
The three countries that currently produce most cocoa are Ivory Coast, Ghana and Ecuador. All three of these countries are developing countries that can benefit from the extra income from sustainable tourism. Cocoa farms that practice horticulture produce less yield in the short term, but are more attractive for rural tourism and much more sustainable in the long term. The income from tourism can bridge the difference in income from a horticulture farm compared with an industrial farm.
The coveted cocoa bean however is just one small part of the cocoa plant. While the beans are exported to be made into chocolate bars, confectionary and drinks, the bean shells, pod husks and cocoa sweetings (a pale yellowish liquid that drains away during fermentation) are usually thrown away. Worldwide, the volume of cocoa waste is steadily growing. This waste makes the production of chocolate less sustainable. A solution to this problem can be to turn the cocoa waste into bio-electricity. In Ghana, researchers Jo Darkwa, Karen Moore and colleagues from the UK University of Nottingham have developed a small 5kW generator which runs off cocoa husks. Their goal is to bring power to rural areas, where only 50% of people typically have access to electricity. Ivory Coast in West Africa is now planning to commercialize this idea into building a biomass plant to supply most of the country with sustainable energy.
If you’ve indulged in consuming chocolate lately, there is a good chance that its cocoa came from Ivory Coast. This West African country is the largest producer of cocoa in the world, where more than 40% of all cocoa beans originate. With more than six million people working in cocoa in the country, it is Ivory Coast’s largest export by far. The country’s cocoa beans have been fuelling people worldwide for decades, but soon other parts of the cocoa plant will be powering Ivory Coast.
The cocoa plant is set to become a significant part of Ivory Coast’s transition to renewable energy. After successful pilot projects, Ivory Coast has begun work on a biomass plant which will run on cocoa waste. The facility will be located in Divo, a town that produces a large share of the country’s cocoa. In the biomass plant, cocoa plant matter left over after cocoa production will be burned to turn a turbine and generate electricity, much like a conventional fossil-fuel power plant. “This plant alone will be able to meet the electricity needs of 1.7 million people,” says Yapi Ogou, managing director of the Ivorian company Société des Energies Nouvelles (Soden), which is involved in building the plant.
The Divo biomass power plant will be West Africa’s largest, and Soden, with support from the US Trade and Development Agency, is set to complete by early 2023. It will be able to produce between 46 and 70MW of electricity per year, according to Ogou. Feasibility studies showed that the facility could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4.5 million tons, compared with existing power sources.
Ivory Coast currently gets most of its power from fossil fuels, with natural gas generating 70% of its energy. The country has a target increasing usage of renewable energy sources to 42% and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2030. In a country with fast-growing energy needs, innovations such as the use of cocoa waste could make all the difference.
In total, the biomass power plant project will cost about 131 billion West African CFA francs ($244m). Nine other similar plants that will generate electricity from cocoa husks are planned to be built across the country. They will be built in cocoa growing areas where the raw material is in ready supply.
As well as producing renewable energy, it is hoped that turning cocoa waste into energy will help reverse the fortunes of the country’s some 600,000 cocoa farmers. Fraciah, who manages 14 acres of cocoa in Divo, is one of them. For many years, she has been thinking of abandoning cocoa farming altogether in favor of rubber farming. She is not alone – in recent years, many cocoa farmers have been switching to more profitable crops such as rubber or banana due to an oversupply of cocoa – something that has only become worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I grow cocoa and it has educated my children but the returns have been minimal,” she says. “We don’t make much profit.” But she welcomes the new biomass power plant, saying it will add to her income and it motivates her to continue cultivating cocoa. “Considering I am a widow – my husband died 18 years ago – extra income will also help me educate my four grandchildren. With more money, I can also save.”
Finding more uses for the waste products of one of the world’s most-loved crops could help keep farmers supplying the chocolate industry for years to come – even as climate change makes it harder to grow cocoa. Alongside the opening of the new plant, the Ivorian government has also proposed a community cooperative for cocoa farmers. Groups of farmers will be able to save money, access loans, and receive dividends to support their families and businesses.
Mohammed Adow the founder of Powershift Africa, a think tank located in Nairobi which has advised governments across Africa on energy issues, says that the Ivory Coast initiative comes at a critical time. “Successful utilization of the cocoa pods will not only ensure universal access to electricity, but also add value to the cocoa production chain, in addition to other economic benefits,” says Adow. “Job creation through collection, transportation, storage and processing of the pods will be realized. It will empower many economically.” And this empowerment can be further increased when tourist can visit the cocoa plantations and learn where their favorite candy comes from.