Reclaiming the meaning of chocolate

How Zora is on a mission to change perceptions of West African cocoa.

Tom Hoare
Words by Tom Hoare, 18.10.2022

When Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he captured what chocolate can mean to a child. For Charlie Bucket, it was the ultimate indulgence – a source of joy, happiness and magical escapism.

Dahl understood deeply chocolate’s sensory appeal, not only in its taste and texture but its presentation – wrapped in a shiny package that invites you to open it.

Yet even Roald Dahl’s imagination couldn’t escape from the structures that govern how we think of chocolate – who makes it, where it comes from, who eats it, and how it’s marketed.

The original 1964 book depicted the Oompa Loompas as black African pygmies that Wonka smuggled out of Africa in crates. Before being revised in 1974 to remove any overt racial overtones, they are workers at best, slaves at worst. The portrayal of Wonka, however, remained consistent – the white, eccentric factory owner and genius who creates the chocolate – and it’s he who holds all the power.

Today, the chocolate market is an oligopoly, dominated by 5 major companies – Mondelez (Cadburys), Hersheys, Mars, Ferraro, and Nestle. Between the 5 of them, they have a 61.8% market share globally. And it’s these companies who dominate how we think of chocolate.

As industrial chocolate’s problematic association to colonialism became more apparent, the relationship between cocoa and its origins was systematically and deliberately diminished. This saw the very idea of chocolate reduced down to little more than flavours, shapes, and branding. If we think of chocolate-producing nations, we think of England, the Netherlands or Switzerland and master chocolatiers in white chefs' hats. We do not think of West Africa, where Ghana and the Ivory Coast export 60% of the world's cacao between them.

Changing perception

Ghana produces some of the highest quality cocoa beans anywhere in the world, yet its reputation as a chocolate provider is marred by old colonial stereotypes – in particular the use of slavery and child labour. Whilst this issue should be in no way diminished, it’s often framed as a distinctly West African practice that is part and parcel of chocolate production in the region, when this is not strictly true and clouds the progress Ghana is making on eradicating it.

Ghana also has a reputation as a bulk bean provider due to the fact it’s a major supplier for Cadbury. This means it’s often considered to produce an inferior form of cocoa compared to Central American exporters. Like most big manufacturers, Cadbury uses a bulk blend of beans. As cocoa is blended, it loses much of its distinctive flavour profile, which the multinationals were able to leverage in order to create a consistent flavour profile for their products.

The reality is that chocolate production is incredibly complex, politically, economically, and socially. The important thing is to not obscure this complexity behind entrenched industry practices, generalisations and marketing tactics.

This is what we were incredibly conscious of when creating Zora - an ethical chocolate company focused on changing Ghana's association with chocolate.