Liberia produces high-quality cacao with CBI support

For many years, Liberian cacao from Liberia was not known for its quality. It was processed in bulk and of unknown origin. Several Liberian cacao companies wanted to improve cacao quality but did not have the technical know-how. With support from The Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), Liberia now produces high-quality cacao for the European market. 

In 2018, the cacao companies got support from CBI's  Mano River Union project in cacao. One of these companies is the Liberia Cocoa Corporation (LCC). They significantly improved cacao quality and set up a laboratory for quality testing. In 2024, they even introduced a new fine-flavour-chocolate brand on the European and US markets.

LCC was founded in 2009 and started organic cacao production in 2010. They have their own plantation and also buy the cacao beans of hundreds of local farmers. Lu Tolbert, director of LCC: "In the first years, we processed our cacao beans in bulk. That meant cacao of average quality that a local exporter simply bought. Our ambition was to improve quality for high-end product applications, but we did not have the know-how or right processes to do this."

Increasing cacao production quality

In 2018, CBI selected LCC for intensive support within CBI's Mano River Union project. They worked closely with Jörn Berger. CBI hired him as an expert to help Liberian companies enter the European market. European companies are very interested in high-quality cacao of traceable origin. And some are prepared to pay higher prices for it.

CBI gave different tutorials and expert training sessions with individual technical support. Lu Tolbert, CEO of LCC: "We learnt a lot about the science behind cacao bean processing. This knowledge enabled us to take the quality of our production to a higher level. We changed the drying process from solar heat drying to airflow. Drying with airflow is slower but works even on rainy days and extracts the acidity from the bean to get the real cacao taste. We also switched from fermenting in big piles of beans to box fermentation to better control the process."

Game-changing laboratory

Jörn: "LCC has taken big steps to improve quality to reach the global top level. Producing high-quality cacao also requires equipment to process and test cacao bean quality. This equipment was unavailable in Liberia, so CBI decided to support with expertise and hands-on knowledge for the creation of a new laboratory at LCC."

CBI contributed mainly through technical assistance and export coaching and arranged for specialised training sessions. One session was about using the lab equipment. Another training session was about assessing cacao liquor quality and the different taste profiles.

LCC was not the only cacao company in Liberia that wanted to improve quality. Lu opened the lab to other companies as well so they could increase their impact on the Liberian cacao sector by working together. Lu: "Our main interest is moving Liberia to international standards. But to do so, companies need equipment to roast and process cacao liquor samples they can send to buyers. This equipment was not available in Liberia before we opened our lab. The reason is that for many years, our cacao sector did not focus on quality." LCC will use the lab to create standardised samples of Liberian cacao for the next global Cacao of Excellence award. The lab could also be used for producing and testing different types of chocolate recipes in small quantities.

Market orientation mission

Lu: "Besides improving production quality, CBI's support had the most impact on our marketing and sales. In January 2020, we went on a market orientation mission to Europe with CBI. We visited the trade fairs Salon du Chocolat and Chocoa as well as companies in Belgium and the Netherlands. These visits helped us a lot to get an idea of the market and connect with buyers from Europe. In February 2023 and 2024, I visited the organic trade fair Biofach in Germany. There, I was able to get around 20 parties interested in chocolate and semi-finished cacao products, including cacao mass, liquor, butter, powder and nibs. Many niche businesses in Western European countries like Germany are very interested in working with smaller independent farms. To make our products even more interesting to them, we obtained organic certification of our cacao production in May 2024."

Improving lives in the community

Higher quality also means better payment for LCC's cacao products. Higher income helps improve the lives of the workers and farmers in the community. In the harvesting season, LCC has 25 employees and 20 more casual workers. They also buy the cacao beans of 522 small-holder farmers. Better payment directly improves the farmers' and their families' lives.

Fair prices and wages are part of LCC's sustainability policy. Other important aspects include no child labour, no forced labour, and good working conditions. LCC also trains workers and producers on key environmental issues in the cacao supply chain. These include measures against deforestation, organic versus chemical fertilisers, organic cacao production, agroforestry, and protecting biodiversity. CBI provided them with training on all these topics. This helps them improve quality and community living conditions,  and increase their production.

Sele Chocolates

Lu: "CBI's support was a big boom for our business. There is now more interest in Liberia as a supplier of high-quality cacao." In 2023, Wallace Craft Chocolate from Canada created a 45% milk chocolate bar with LCC beans. This bar received a bronze award in the Americas bean-to-bar and craft chocolatier competition 2023 at the International Chocolate Awards.

In March 2024, LCC introduced their own chocolate brand called Selé Chocolates. Lu wants to use the brand to raise awareness for Liberian cacao further. "The chocolate is organic and 100% traceable to our farm. We are starting with 4 chocolate bars (80% dark, 68% dark, milk and white chocolate) that we introduced in Liberia and on the international market. We start in Germany and the Netherlands and expand from there. So much is happening right now to further establish ourselves. It is all very exciting!".

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