Interview with Marika van Santvoort

A conversation with the cocoa consultant and people’s advocate about the industry’s complexities.

Hailing from the Netherlands, Moving Cocoa Founder Marika van Santvoort has dedicated her entire career to uprooting the cocoa industry. Today, her cocoa consulting agency offers a wide range of services to players along the industry’s supply chain, including logistics, business development, product innovation, and sustainability. Her vision? To live in a world where all raw materials of the cocoa tree serve a meaningful purpose, where cocoa farmers across the globe can earn a decent living, and where consumers are more informed and feel connected to the sources of the chocolates they eat.

We sat down with Marika to learn about her unique journey and gained invaluable insights into some of the complexities the cocoa industry is facing along the way.

You founded Moving Cocoa Consultancy in 2013. Describe your journey. What have been your biggest challenges and achievements to date?

Ultimately, it was my drive to learn, help, and travel that lead me to West Africa after university. I lived there for two years and spent most of my time in Cameroon working with cocoa farmers. This inspired me to bring more innovation and transparency to the cocoa supply chain.

I had a bit of an unusual start as a consultant. After leaving Africa, I founded Moving Cocoa Consultancy with very little professional experience. Most people take up consulting once they’ve had long careers in companies, but I started fresh. Luckily, I got in contact with the right people who eventually hired me to organize Chocoa, a cocoa and chocolate festival in Amsterdam, for 6 consecutive years. Today it is one of the leading events in the industry. From cocoa farmers to traders and cacao buyers, this helped meet a lot of people in my sector. Since then, I’ve mainly been working in cocoa sustainability and logistics.

Currently, my company is in an interesting place. I am expanding my business to offer logistics, distribution and sales services for selected cocoa exporters (presently in Ecuador and Venezuela) of fine flavoured cacao. My partner, Mariana De La Rosa, and I work directly with the farmers—there are no middlemen in between. I am proud that we have already sold several containers of premium cacao and have been able to connect the farmers directly with the buyers. We offer a level of transparency that goes quite far; some of our suppliers even make videos for our chocolate makers. At the same time, I am running a start-up that produces cacao juice from the pulp of the beans, a raw material that farmers traditionally wouldn’t get paid for. The product is not yet on the market, but having made it this far is already an achievement. I am very excited about it. 

Meanwhile, I am lucky not to have experienced too many challenges on my path. Time and money are often a juggling act, of course. The cacao business is predominantly male, but that is changing. More and more hardworking women are making a name for themselves. The way I see it, being a woman helps in this industry. In my case, people easily open up to me, tell me what they know, and share what is going on in the sector. Perhaps because they don’t see me as a threat. But it’s alright because I don’t take or personally or too seriously.  The way I see it: I can only grow from that knowledge. I think that women need to work harder to prove themselves in this male-dominated sphere. But it helps if people like you and feel that you are serious. The cocoa sector is one of likability and trust.

Amsterdam is the largest hub for cocoa trade in the world. How has the market landscape you are working to uproot developed and shifted over the years?

Just 15 years ago, huge ships would arrive in Amsterdam, their hulls filled to the brim with cocoa beans. Today, the boats are smaller and laden with containers that transport cocoa beans in jute bags. This has changed the logistics. In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in grinding in countries that grow cocoa, such as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia. Ivory Coast has continuously surpassed Amsterdam as the largest grinding area globally for quite some time now. That’s not to say that grinding has reduced in Zaanstreek. This number has also risen. 

All in all, more cocoa is being produced worldwide. I am often worried where all these cocoa beans will go because chocolate consumption is growing, but only moderately. If there is an oversupply of beans again, the prices drop. This happened in 2016 - 2017, and we are still recovering from that. It pulled down companies, governments, and farmers that saw an instant price drop of around 30% in a short time. I do not feel that companies and governments are keeping enough oversight to maintain a healthy balance between the production of cocoa beans and their processing into cocoa products.

Top cocoa producers in Ivory Coast and Ghana recently made headlines with the announcement that they were considering pulling the plug on sustainability schemes in their countries. This came as a direct response to chocolate makers failing to pay living income differentials for bean purchases. In late October 2019, Conseil du Café Cacao and Ghana Cocoa Board attended the World Cocoa Foundation's Partnership Meeting in Berlin at which they pledged to withdraw this plan of action. Can you shed some light on how the situation unfolded and was resolved? What is your stance on the subject?

I can only applaud this move. When systems, like the commoditised cocoa prices, do not work, then governments need to intervene and work together to protect their citizens. This is exactly what happened in this scenario. Ghana and Ivory Coast are currently working together to define floor prices. Between the two of them, they control around 60% of the world’s cocoa bean production, so they have a say in these matters. Their governments claim that a bigger share will flow to the farmers, and that production will stabilise. This is great, but it’s not clear how they will manage this. This also will have a significant impact on other production countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Ecuador.

Ecuador produces very good cocoa beans, which will be cheaper than West African beans from now on. This will further increase production and will result in more exports of Ecuadorian beans. But these developments also bring risks of reduced quality, differentiation of Ecuadorian cacao, and sustainability. Why don’t all cacao governments start working together to create a minimum global price for all farmers that produce sustainably? That would be the ultimate improvement for the sector.

I do not know how this will play out. It will definitely have an impact, it already has. It is important to know that Ghana and Ivory Coast have elections coming up in 2020, so this could well be a political move to get more votes. I hope they will be more open about how they will implement this and how much is actually going to the farmers in the future.

Within the cacao industry, there is an ever-increasing demand for organic food ingredients. Why organic and how is this impacting your business?

It hasn’t impacted my business. Still, yes, the demand for organic products has increased, and this is coming from consumers who want to eat more healthily. I have noticed that many consumers have a misconstrued view of organic products, and this is also true for chocolate. An organic seal on a bar of chocolate does not say anything about the actual quality of the product in terms of flavour. Also, it’s often not even fully organic. There are a lot of misconceptions about certifications. It’s good that they exist, but control mechanisms are weak and, let’s face it, almost all chocolates in supermarkets are certified (try finding an uncertified bar, organic or otherwise). Hence, this hasn’t put an end to the challenges. On the contrary! Things have gotten worse over the past decade. 

When it comes to certification, to me, organic is better than the other certification programs out there, but it’s no panacea either. Ultimately I prefer direct trade relations and real transparency about value distribution. This is why I directly connect buyers to the farmers we work with in Ecuador and Venezuela.

If certification were really working, then 90% of the rainforests in the Ivory Coast would not have disappeared in the past 50 years (this is partially connected to the growth of cocoa). Likewise, there would not be 2.2 million child labourers on farms, and farmers would not be living in poverty but would have decent incomes. Certification is no panacea.

 

From organising events like Origin Chocolate and Chocoa to working with bean-to-bar makers, traders and governments—with Moving Cocoa, you have dedicated your entire career to cocoa. What fascinates you personally about this natural resource?

I love the diversity, the travelling, and the adventure. I enjoy working towards deadlines and getting things fixed. I am ambitious and I make plans, but I often figure things out as I go along. When I first started Moving Cocoa some people advised me to choose between working in sales, logistics, or sustainability. But I’m glad I didn’t listen. I’ve worked for numerous companies and organisations in several different countries which, in turn, has given me a broad perspective, extensive knowledge and a large network. All these are helpful to me today. 

I feel this powerful drive to take on a stronger role in communication. I want to bring real stories of farmers to consumers, forge more connections in the market. What is sustainability really? Is it paying a premium on an already ridiculously low price? Should cocoa be commoditised? There is still a big gap in the provision of real, transparent views on the market’s challenges and opportunities to consumers. I want to write and talk about it more in the media because people need to understand. Premium chocolate is still a niche, only making up for about 5% of the market. The rest is bulk chocolate. Growing this niche is essential for things to get better. Until everyone finds it normal to pay between 3 and 7 Euros for a chocolate bar in the supermarket, we need to move this message forward. That too is moving cocoa.

Your cocoa endeavours have taken you around the globe and have met many farmers in person along the way. Tell us some of their stories.

Two stories come to mind. One is Belinda, a 66-year-old farmer in Tarapoto, Peru where around 1,100 cocoa trees are growing on a hill. Water is her biggest enemy. A few months of the year, usually from October until December, heavy rains cause floods. In June and July, on the other hand, the soil is as dry as a cork due to the lack of rain. To keep her trees nourished, Belinda carries 20 litres of water up the hill, six times a day. Climate change is having a significant impact on people’s production, ergo their income. This has never been as clear to me as in Peru.

The other story is in Ghana, where I was talking to a group of farmers up north. Every farmer knows what price he or she will get for the cocoa beans because the farm gate in Ghana is fixed all-year-round. The government sets these prices. Out of nowhere, they asked me what the system is like in other countries, they were curious about what farmers are getting elsewhere. We talked about the world market price and calculated on the spot that this is about 50% of the farm gate price in Ghana. This was shocking, obviously, and difficult to explain too. But on a positive note, farmers in Ghana are not worried about selling their beans. There is always a buyer (the government). As a result, growing cocoa is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farming families in Ghana. Ghanaian farmers are very proud of their cocoa beans.  

Thank you, Marika.

Visit her website: movingcocoa.com

Imagery courtesy of Marika van Santvoort and Chococao (Venezuela)

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