By Vaidehi Bhandari*

As a pastry chef and entrepreneur running a small-scale baking business, I have always believed in the magic of cocoa. From the velvety richness of couverture chocolate to the deep, earthy notes of cocoa powder to the creamy allure of cocoa butter, these ingredients are the essence of our creations.

However, the last few months have been quite challenging for businesses that use real cocoa in their operations. The sweet industry is faced with a bitter struggle now that cocoa prices are soaring to nearly three times their usual rates.

The cocoa crisis is not just a conundrum for large manufacturers, but a pressing concern that threatens the very survival of small businesses.

Why the Crisis?

The ongoing crisis is a complex issue that stems from several intertwined factors.

Climate Change has had a severe impact on cocoa-producing regions, particularly in West Africa. About 70% of the world’s cocoa is supplied by Africa, making it the global hub for all things chocolate. Unpredictable weather patterns, such as extended periods of droughts and unexpected rainfall, have wrecked cocoa crops, leading to major shortages.

While the current climate is a key culprit in this situation, there are other factors as well.

Cocoa is considered a “poor man’s crop”. Multitudes of West African farmers saw cocoa as their chance to escape poverty. Consequently, we were able to enjoy low chocolate rates for decades. Unlike other commodities, cocoa harvesting did not develop into a plantation business. Even today, the crop is largely grown by small stakeholders, lacking the resources to re-invest in their plots.

The most recent significant tree planting effort in West Africa was in the early 2000s, especially in the northwest region of Ivory Coast. Now these trees are well beyond their prime, leading to lower yields and making them susceptible to bad weather and diseases.

Baking Under Pressure

The ripple effects of these global issues are harsh on small businesses like mine. At Bohemian Bakehouse, we pride ourselves on using high-quality ingredients to create our signature desserts. The sudden surge in cocoa prices has skyrocketed our costs.

The immediate consequence is the increased cost of production. Every batch of chocolate cakes, every tray of brownies, and every lot of cookies we serve, now come with a heavier price tag. For a small venture operating on tight budgets, this is a significant blow.

We’ve had to make some tough calls, such as increasing prices or finding ways to cut costs wherever possible. Neither of these options is ideal; high prices are driving away long-time customers, whereas cutting corners is simply not an option for us. We place great importance on the integrity of our products and the satisfaction of our customers.

Sourcing alternatives may seem like an obvious option, but it’s easier said than done. Good-quality chocolate and cocoa products are what take dishes to the next level. Swapping them with inferior ingredients can compromise the quality of our goods.

India & Chocolates

The impact of the ongoing cocoa crisis on Indian markets is concerning. India’s booming love affair with chocolate, driven by an expanding middle class and increasing disposable incomes, has led to an increase in demand for premium cocoa products.

Homegrown businesses and small brands play a key role in catering to this growing demand, offering artisanal confections that stand out in a market largely dominated by mass-produced goods. However, the shortage threatens to stifle this growth, making it a challenge for small players to thrive in the market.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Despite the challenges, we are hopeful and resilient. The crisis has urged many small business owners to innovate and adapt.

For instance, we’re exploring more non-cocoa options, and diversifying our product lines. We are also actively keeping our community informed of the changing situation while communicating the value and quality of our products.

The cocoa crisis is a stark reminder of the delicate interconnectedness of global supply chains. It also forces us to look at the importance of sustainable practices.

In the face of this conundrum, we are reminded that every great chocolate creation begins with the humble cocoa bean, grown with the utmost care and dedication.

About the author:

* Vaidehi Bhandari is a Pastry Chef who completed her Diploma in Professional Patisserie and Confectionery from Lavonne Academy of Baking Science and Pastry Arts. She lets her skills shine through via her consultancy and baking services.