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The Food of The Gods

Nigerians love chocolate as much as anyone, yet they have no industry making it.

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My seven-year old nephew recently asked me a sticky question: “Uncle Musky, where do chocolates come from?”

“Chocolates?” I quipped, scanning my mental box for a passable answer. “Yes, chocolates,” he repeated, licking choc-soiled fingers. “Where do they come from?”

Chocolates come from the cocoa tree, I said, wondering if he would buy the truth. “Cocoa tree?” he bellowed. “Where do cocoa trees grow, do we have cocoa trees in Nigeria?” I rolled my eyes: “How can we not have cocoa trees?!” Time for a quick geography lesson, I muttered to myself. We spent the next 10 minutes discussing the origins and uses of cocoa; cultivated in the tropics, its produce consumed in a variety of forms globally.

When my informed ignorance of the bitter-sweet bean began to wane, I grabbed an encyclopaedia (thank goodness for a good, old fashioned home library; and by the way, how many people still read hardcover tomes these days?) and, together, we searched for ‘chocolate’ which referenced the word ‘cocoa’ or ‘cacao tree’, the last term being a tree that produces an ovoid-shaped pod (fruit) containing cacao seeds or beans; the trees growing naturally in the South American jungle, thousands of years ago, well before processed cacao products began to go mainstream slightly over 100 years ago. Its scientific name: theobroma cacao, the Latin word ‘theobroma’ literally meaning “food of the gods” in English and ‘cacao’ being an Aztec word.

We read that it was the Spanish conquistadors (where didn’t they go?) that introduced cacao to the rest of the world (and I was thinking aloud, “but how can that be? Is it possible that they sold cacao beans to their trading partners in Africa, who then began to cultivate them?”). By now, my positively pesky one was staring suspiciously at my ugly face.

His mind was gyrating. “Aztec, Spanish sailors, America, Asia, Africa, where is Africa, is Africa in Nigeria?”, “Latin…What is Latin?”, “Food of the gods, who are gods?”, “Does God eat chocolates too?” I could see a litany of questions welling up in his eyes, so, smart lazy adult that I was, I swerved the conversation into a cul-de-sac.

Here was I, face-to-face with honest ignorance, confronting the classic heuristic dilemma of urban kids growing up in today’s Nigeria—let’s call them ‘Generation Y+’.

Born and bred in the early years of the 21st century, they will never grasp the agronomical world of their forbearers. Try telling the Y+ clan that rice (especially the American long grain type) was, not too long ago, an uncommon, foreign delicacy. Try informing them that the chocolates they now consume in various forms was once so rare, and so expensive only the elite and wannabe bourgeoisie could be seen enjoying them. These days, we all gobble up chocolate bars, chocolate sweets, chocolate-coated biscuits, a pantheon of chocolate cakes, and chocolate-flavoured cereals almost recklessly. Nigeria now has a confusing assortment of chocolate beverages, chocolate-flavoured yoghurts, chocolate-choked confectionaries and chocolate ice-creams to choose from.

The hot, humid climate also helps. Try drinking cold chocolate in steamy 35oC weather—or a warm cup on a cold, wet morning. I have not seen one person who has said anything bad about chocolates, except that too much of it may ruin your digestive borders, if you get my drift. A chocolate drink is a breakfast staple in most Nigerian homes, and for many, especially young, folks, saying “I want to drink tea” actually means “can I have a chocolate drink?”

So, now let us talk about Nigeria’s choc-revolution. The global obsession for ‘nice and sweet’ edibles has crept into Nigerian society like the subtle haze of a misty morning. Our choc-trajectory has been a long and trickling, subliminal evolution of our culinary culture. This was a land once famous for its cocoa plantations. The story of theobroma cacao in Naija (as most Nigerian youths call their country) chronicles the gastro-agrarian history of Chinua Achebe’s homeland. Once a grand and scenic symbol of Nigeria’s agricultural fecundity, the “Groundnut Pyramids” of northern Nigeria were the envy of the world, the nutty equivalents of the pyramids of Mount Sinai in Egypt, supplying the world with its stock of peanuts and vegetable oils (as recorded in Nigeria’s N200 bill).

Today, the peanut pyramids have been levelled, replaced by a plethora of urban jungles and conurbations; and the forests of the future continue to disappear as peanut fields, maize, cashew, oil palm and cocoa plantations struggle for space and economic relevance with religious institutions and property developers. This was how Nigeria lost its once prominent position in the global comity of cocoa growers, and thanks to ‘new age, modern’ realities (meaning global trade, cyberspace and the Anglo-Saxon influence), Nigerians now consume more cocoa and cocoa-based products than they produce. “My fridge is a haven of chocolate bars…especially white chocolate, I love them,” Ms. Uduak Johnson, a Lagos-based retailer told FORBES AFRICA.

With close to six million farmers producing an estimated three million tons of cocoa annually, about 50 million people worldwide depend on the crop for their livelihood, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. A glut of family-owned farms in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana produce 70% of this global output.

A significant share of these West African produce ends up in Africa’s largest population patch, as Nigerian and foreign companies in the food and beverages, pharmaceutical, personal care sectors buy up raw and semi-processed bean stock from farmers and trading companies, and the rest, as they say, is yum yum…chocolate bars, cakes, biscuits, toffees, and cocoa-based beverages.

So, the question, “where do chocolates come from?” deserves another answer. Chocolates do not come from cocoa trees. “They come from choc-factories in Austria, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Turkey, Switzerland, Ghana, even China and all those other places that Nigerians like to buy their sweets from,” says Mr Alan Akinkunle-Baker, a Nigerian-born, UK-based management consultant. “Our chocolate habit is really an imported culture.”

I disagree. Cacao consumption was a universal routine in previous millennia, well before ‘globalization’ arrived. The Spanish and South Americans must agree to share the credit for introducing cocoa to the rest of the world with their West African cousins. We need a Pan-African conference on the origins of theobroma cacao.

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