Emile Gatson, cacao farmer
Emile Gatson, cacao farmer | Credit: Fenohenintsoa Jerry Andrianaivoarivony for USAID.

How Chocolate Stimulates Taste Buds, Forests, and Communities

By USAID, Kelvin Gorospe

Chocolate can be even better when you know where it comes from. You may know that chocolate comes from the beans of cacao. The fruit’s bitter beans—through a culinary alchemy of fermenting, drying, roasting, and melting—are transformed into sweet, velvety chocolate. 

You may also know that the cacao plant is native to Central and South America, where Indigenous Peoples have valued the cacao bean for centuries as both a commodity and as its own currency. But what do you and other chocolate lovers know about the communities that grow cacao today? 

Cacao is a multi-billion dollar industry cultivated globally. Many of the people who grow cacao are small-scale producers like Emile Gaston, a 75-year-old tree nursery technician and cacao farmer in Madagascar who acknowledges, “cacao is an opportunity to develop my region.” 

However, it can be a challenge to connect smallholder farmers growing heritage varieties of cacao to international buyers seeking exactly that—premium quality cacao. USAID is helping to bridge this divide.


Gabensis, Papua New Guinea: Cocoa Nursery Establishment
Gabensis, Papua New Guinea: Cocoa Nursery Establishment
“Cacao is an opportunity to develop my region.”

USAID, through our Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient Thriving Societies (HEARTH) program, is tackling these challenges in a big way. USAID recognizes that the goals of conserving biodiversity and critical ecosystems, and improving the well-being of local communities are inextricably linked. Humans support nature, and nature supports humans.

HEARTH aims to accomplish these goals by working with the private sector to co-invest in sustainable and alternative livelihoods. Private sector partners then build on USAID’s programming and initiatives to further advance biodiversity conservation, climate and health priorities, and global food security through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative.  

Currently, HEARTH is working with cacao farmers in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana. These countries account for over 70% of the global cacao market. Private sector partners include Akesson’s Organic, Beyond Good, Blommer Chocolate Company, Costco WholesaleGuittard ChocolateLindt & Sprüngli AGMars WrigleyMondelezNestléofi, Outspan Limited PNG, and Sahanala.  


Cacao beans in Ecuador are ripe and ready for processing into chocolate.
Cacao beans in Ecuador are ripe and ready for processing into chocolate.

These activities increase the resilience of marginalized societies facing the pervasive threat of climate change. They also help conserve biodiversity, as well as better manage and restore key landscapes such as forests, grasslands, and peatlands.

Ibu Hamsia, a 50-year-old farmer in Indonesia, can attest to the impact of climate change – in the form of increased rainfall and humidity – on her crops. “The growth and spread of fungi on cacao plants… this causes cacao plants to be susceptible to pests and diseases,” she explains. 

Her family relies on cacao to make a living. “It was from farming cacao that me and my husband were able to get additional income to pay for anything, including my children’s education and other expenses,” Ibu says.

Understanding the origin of the cacao in your chocolate is the first step to understanding how your purchasing decisions impact communities. It is not always easy—chocolate is a globalized market with many trading partners of buyers, sellers, and processors. Luckily, the challenge of tracing cacao through the supply chain can be made simpler. 

“There are no middlemen. The beans are bought by the fermentary and directly supply the exporter,” says Victor Ganguly, business manager for ofi in Papua New Guinea, a company that has been supporting farming communities through a traceability and sustainability initiative known as Cocoa Compass. The partnership is between Outspan PNG Limited, a subsidiary of the international food and agri-business Olam International, and farmers in the YUS Conservation Area, the oldest conservation area of Papua New Guinea. 

This program strives to be inclusive of women farmers like Yanam Chris, a farmer in Bugabuang, Papua New Guinea. “Money,” she explains, “brings us store food and clothes and we are able to pay school fees and medical fees.” 


Yanam Chris, farmer
Yanam Chris, farmer

The full scope of HEARTH activities, however, goes well beyond cacao farming. In addition to environmental sustainability and improved livelihoods in the cacao sector, the 14 HEARTH activities are also improving the sustainability of sea cucumber and seaweed farming in Madagascar; developing ecotourism in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh; launching conservation edutainment in East Africa; and partnering with coffee growers to reduce poaching and deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

All HEARTH activities also develop rigorous plans for measuring and monitoring their efforts. Through formal research activities and more informal peer-to-peer sharing, HEARTH is an opportunity for the global development community to learn from experience and better understand how to serve communities while also benefiting the environment. 

By combining our partners’ resources and skills, USAID’s integrated programming increases investment and amplifies outcomes, helping communities conserve nature and its resources. In doing so, growing cacao can be a win-win for both communities and the environment. 

So let’s do what we can to support the communities that are committed to sustaining nature and our sweet cravings, not just today on World Chocolate Day, but every day.  

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn.

Strategic Objective
Agriculture, Biodiversity Conservation, Food Security, Private Sector Engagement
Africa, Asia
USAID logo


USAID is the world's premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID's work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity, demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience.

Kelvin Gorospe

AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow.

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