Once the exclusive preserve of aristocrats and elites, chocolate was for centuries a symbol of decadent deliciousness that every common man and woman aspired to taste at least once. Over the centuries, the cocoa bean was democratised for mass consumption throughout Europe and the United States and a massive global industrial chocolate industry was born. The day when African chocolate is consumed by Africans has, however, yet to see the light.
In Kenya, which unlike its West African counterparts is not a cocoa producing nation, manufacturing chocolate for local consumption has long been a complicated affair. For years Kenyans have been limited to consuming the biggest of the global commercial brands. Yet a 2015 report noted that rising disposable incomes and a significant growth in Nairobian middle income consumers has helped bolster the development of small-scale chocolate confectionary artisans. As incomes rise and people look for more luxury items to spend their hard earned cash on, a bar of big brand chocolate no longer suffices to quell our appetites for the finer things in life. “Nairobians come to the Fairview Hotel exclusively to taste my chocolate treasure boxes” beams Lucas Mwaore, who has worked at the hotel as a pastry chef since 2005.
The trend is there and can be viewed in the rise of establishments such as Les Artisans Chocolatiers which recently opened at Village Market. Yet despite these encouraging developments, Kenya is still heavily reliant on global brands for its raw cocoa and the West/East Africa chocolate connection has still not been born.
A brief history of Cocoa
During his fourth voyage to the “New World” in 1502, Christopher Columbus was surprised that the local Mayan population used a strange bean as currency. Locally known as Ka’kau, Mayans had at that point been farming cocoa beans for well over two millennia and used cream of cocoa to cure wounds, as a medicine and also loved it as a drink which they consumed daily without sugar but with chilli and a lot of froth. Upon his return to Europe, Columbus brought some of these beans with him but found that people didn’t like them. An Italian writer from the time famously described a cup of cocoa as a “drink for pigs”. It wasn’t for at least another couple of decades, when people discovered the taste could be modified by adding sugar and spices, that interest began to pick up.
In the two centuries following its discovery, large-scale labour-intense plantations were set up across South America. As the local populations succumbed to the diseases, slaves from the West coast of Africa were transported over to work the plantations that were feeding the growing European appetite for this exotic drink.
Latin America maintained its dominance of the chocolate market until the twentieth century when it was surpassed by producers from Ivory Coast and Ghana. Today, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria are respectively the 1st, 2nd and 4th cocoa producing countries in the world with Indonesia occupying third place.
In 2014, the Guardian newspaper reported a decline in the global output of cocoa. This was due to rising incomes in emerging Asian economies, combined with the economic recovery of the global North and low productivity of cocoa farmers. The report highlighted how poverty in the small scale farming communities that produce 90% of the world’s supply of cacao is endemic with farmers employing out-dated farming methods and lacking resources to invest in fertilisers or to replace ageing trees.
The world’s chocolate industry today amounts to about $98 billion a year. Indonesia is one of the biggest chocolate processing countries of the world and 45% alone of its cocoa comes from Ivory Coast. From Indonesia the processed cocoa is transported to Europe or the USA from whence it makes its way to Kenya, coming almost full circle, half a continent away from where it was originally grown.
In order to reach a comestible form, chocolate has to undergo a series of stages. Cocoa trees grow most favourably in the hot and humid tropical temperatures of South America, West Africa and Southeast Asia. Despite technological advances, cocoa must still be harvested manually after which, pods are selected, opened and beans are extracted and put into trays where they are left to ferment. After fermentation, which takes approximately a week, the beans turn brown. At this point the beans are dried for another week before they can be shipped to a processing plant for mass production.
When it comes to processing, the first stage is roasting the beans which helps develop colour and refine the flavour. At this point the outer shell is removed and the inner meat is broken down into small pieces commonly known as “nibs”. These are then ground and passed through a series of sieves in a process called “winnowing”. The grinding process generates heat and the dry granular consistency of the cocoa nib is transformed into a liquid as the high amount of fat contained in the nib melts into something known as “cocoa liquor”. This is then mixed with cocoa butter, sugar and, depending on the end product, milk and vanilla.
After blending is complete, moulding is the final procedure for chocolate processing. This step allows cocoa liquor to cool and harden into different shapes depending on the mould. Finally the chocolate is packaged and ready for distribution around the world.
Chocolate in Nairobi
Over the past decade Nairobi has witnessed a gradual increase of chocolate artisans who take great pride in creating beautiful chocolate assortments, creations and ice cream. Chef Mwaore, whose beautiful assorted chocolate bonbons are as elegant on the eye as they are delicious in the mouth, tells us that there are a few big chocolate distributors in Kenya and that for him it was just a question of sitting down and sampling different types until he could find one that was suitable for his needs. In the end he settled on Barry Callebaut, a Swiss/Belgian company that distributes the chocolate for one in five of the chocolate brands that exist in the world.
Yet focussing exclusively on expensive distributors isn’t a must. According to Domenico Pellegrino, who runs the Italian ice-cream parlour Gelsi in Parklands, he originally would import his chocolate all the way from Italy until he discovered that the Kenyan brand Raha was perfectly suited to his needs. Mwaore and Pellegrino both hold one thing in common: they don’t know where the beans for their chocolate originate from. Unlike with coffee, where provenance is held in the utmost esteem, it is still difficult to find chocolate that can be traced back to its source.
Mwaore isn’t concerned, for him the most important things is employing a chocolate that can suit his artistic needs. Pellegrino values taste above all else and doesn’t feel consumers are interested in where chocolate comes from.
So if beauty, flavour and creativity are what you value in a piece of bespoke chocolate, then welcome to a new Nairobi era. But if locally produced chocolate that you can trace back to its origin is what you are after, do not expect to see it for sale in Kenya any time soon.