What Stats Reveal About The Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries

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Until a few weeks ago, searching for the “Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries” would give the impression that Google was at a loss to come out with consistent classifications. Jumping from one web page to another, not only did the list of major cocoa producers deliver a different photograph, but none of the blog articles and stats providers could be trusted to point to official and updated sources. From this challenge, I decided to independently research data on world production of cocoa from reliable and current sources and then develop and share analytical annotations on the situation currently available for the top 10 cocoa producing countries.

The research was carried out through the consultation of two separate databases: the first time made possible through the free and public availability of FAO data; the second, thanks to a serendipitous finding of valuable ICCO data.

Research and Interpretation of FAO vs. ICCO Statistical Data on World Cocoa Production

⠀• FAO
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to achieve food security, fight malnutrition, and defeat hunger through periodic data monitoring, both in developing and developed countries. Its powerful FAOSTAT tool is the world’s largest database of food and agriculture statistics, providing free access to insightful statistical figures for over 245 countries and territories from 1961 to the most recent year available.
Entries listed in the FAOSTAT database are mainly supplied by governments through national publications and FAO questionnaires (both paper or electronic) but also collected through national or international agencies or organizations.

The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) is a global organization composed of both cocoa producing and cocoa consuming member countries. Formerly located in London, United Kingdom, since 1973, ICCO inaugurated new headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in 2017.
Since its establishment, one of ICCO’s main activities has been the collection, processing, and publication of cocoa statistics (production, prices, stocks, consumption, etc.). The (paid) Quarterly Bulletin of Cocoa Statistics produced by ICCO is the most authoritative source of cocoa statistics in the world.
(ICCO considers a commercial cocoa year the time running from October 1st of a calendar year to September 30th of the following calendar year.)
Data about cocoa production are collected primarily by sending questionnaires to countries (ministry of agriculture, department of trade, cocoa organizations, etc.), and secondarily via other sources such as libraries, Internet, trade organizations, specialist institutions, and international news agencies.

To acknowledge whether and how data from both the FAO and ICCO database were concordant and overlapping, I first sorted the entries for the latest year available (2017 for FAO and 2017/18 for ICCO) and then reordered them in descending (from larger to smaller) cocoa bean production per tons:

What observations emerged from the translation of these data into graphics?

By juxtaposing the FAO list versus the ICCO, which consider both continental and national cocoa production, two critical aspects look immediately evident—and a third less so, but equally noteworthy:

⠀1. While Africa and the Americas mostly show aligned data on cocoa production between FAO and ICCO sources, the pic for Asia denotes a discrepant focus. In particular, while FAO distinguishes the output from Asia and Oceania, ICCO aggregates the two continents—probably due to Oceania’s marginality—and informs that the overall figure for the Asian-Oceanian production is significantly lower (326,000 tons)—roughly 44%—of that provided by the combined FAO Asia-Oceania (740,187 tons).
Such discrepancy is eloquent in the world cocoa production by continent piechart:

While in the FAO overview Asia fetches a 13% slice of the entire world cocoa production, in the ICCO, the same portion has shrunk to half (7%).

By looking at the next piechart, highlighting the top 10 cocoa producing countries, the overestimation of the Asian figure by FAO points its finger at a clear culprit on ICCO. Indonesia is the one in Asia suffering from a halved cocoa production, which tarnished a historical reputation garnered on the podium as the third world cocoa producer since the 2000s.

⠀2. The ICCO-based Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries piechart officially proclaims a new entry among the first three world cocoa producers: Ecuador has surpassed Indonesia as the third largest cocoa bean producing country in the world!
When and how that happened?
Let’s start from exploring the following line chart, zeroed in on the cocoa production trends for the Asian and South American country over the last 5 years:

According to ICCO data, in the last 5 years, Ecuador has kept confidently advancing its cocoa production, passing from 232,000 tons in 2013/14 to 280,000 in 2017/18. Indonesia, on the other hand, has assisted to a drastic drop in the cocoa production, falling from glorious 375,000 tons in 2013/14 to scant 240,000 in 2017/18.
The consignment of the bronze medal from Indonesia to Ecuador as the third largest cocoa producing country has materialized after the year 2016/17.

So, what caused such an exploit by Ecuador taking over Indonesia in cocoa production in the last years?

Cocoa production in Ecuador has been steadily climbing since the 2000s, owing to:

⠀• scientific research conducted by INIAP, agricultural adoption of high-yielding CCN-51—after the El Niño event in 1998 wiped out a substantial amount of the country’s Nacional—and commercial differentiation of enhanced crop varieties, such as the quality-graded ASE, ASS, ASSS, and ASN clones;
⠀• a stable economy in Latin America, especially after the introduction of US dollar as the official currency in 2000, which facilitated export activities to the United States (the first importing country for Ecuadorian cocoa beans), whereas a series of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements were put into effect, the latest of which occurred with the EU market in 2017;
⠀• successful public-private cooperation initiatives, assisting cocoa growers at all levels, from plantation consultancy to economic financing and strategic promotion of cocoa products at international fairs and events (about 80% of Ecuadorian cocoa is destined for export, according to the national cocoa association ANECACAO).

On the opposite trend, Indonesian cocoa production substantially shrank in the last years as:

⠀• farmers increasingly switched to more lucrative crops, such as rubber, coconut, and oil palm, due to a lack of support by the government to provide adequate agronomic assistance to demanding cocoa growing activities;
⠀• annual per capita consumption of chocolate languished at just 11 ounces (300 grams), according to Euromonitor International. A slump that turned the world’s third-largest grower into a net importer from West Africa to meet local demand for cheaper quality but affordable chocolate confectionery.

If the dramatic cocoa producing situation in Indonesia prompted more imports from West Africa, the larger and larger production of cocoa in this area hides something fishy, especially in poor countries like Côte d’Ivoire.

If this time ICCO cannot address details with this specific regard, the data provided by FAO on additional crop variables, such as Area harvested and Yield, come well in handy to understand what lies behind.

⠀3. Increasing figures on Area harvested for cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire stand out from other cocoa producing countries—and, as such, they are concerning. A trend that justifies the extended sacrifice of natural forests in the name of cocoa crops often abandoned due to advanced plant aging, insufficient training on good farming practices, and low business attractiveness for younger generations.

From the FAO data available on Area harvested in Côte d’Ivoire, in fact, the first cocoa producing country in the world ramps up from an Area harvested value of 2,731,411 hectares in 2013/14 to staggering 4,147,459 hectares in 2017/18—showing a 66% increase—considering the unvaried Yield value (declining at less than 5,000 hectograms per hectare.)

Awaiting for future statistics confirming the actual trends illustrated for the major cocoa producing countries in 2017/2018, feel free to express additional insights on the joint FAO/ICCO statistics above discussed.