Sylvestre Awono

The cocoa industry has been battling several socio-economic and environmental challenges in the recent past. While, on the one hand, the adverse effects of climate change affect the productivity and quality of cacao trees, vast expanses of forests are being replaced with cocoa plantations to meet increasing consumer demands. Moreover, child labour is a common occurrence in developing countries to compensate for labour shortage and cost-cutting. It is also common knowledge that most cocoa-farming families continue to live in extreme poverty owing to several reasons. Environmentalists and human rights defenders continue to draw significant attention to these global issues, thereby causing a progressive change in consumer awareness and purchasing behaviour. In turn, this has urged several players in the cocoa industry to commit to sustainable cocoa and work towards preserving ecosystems, uplifting the lives of the farming communities, and ensuring the world’s cocoa supply. With digital innovations making a significant breakthrough in addressing these challenges, remote-monitoring, traceability, AI, and several other technological advancements are part and parcel of the industry’s approach to sustainable cocoa. Read on to learn more about the recent developments in the industry and what the future of cocoa sustainability looks like.
In Conversation With

Sylvestre Awono

Awono Sylvestre is the Cacao-Trace Expert and Senior Product and Training Manager (Chocolate) at Puratos, and is responsible for the business development of Cacao-Trace. He bridges Cacao-Trace sourcing communities to market opportunities, never sparing any energy to find more revenues for Cacao-Trace farmers. At Puratos, he has had an enriching 16-year career, where he had also successively led R&D, Product Management, and Business Development of Bakery products until 2017. In the years prior to joining Puratos, he held various management positions in R&D, Process Improvement for flavours like essential oils, vanilla and Coffee, and the fermentation department at academic and corporate levels.


It would only be fair to say that Sylvestre’s career in the agri-industry was inevitable. He was raised by his grandparents, and his grandfather, who worked the plantations in Cameroon, taught him to respect the farmers and nature. “My connection with farmers, to the land, and nature has been a beacon in the night when choosing which studies to pursue and later my career,” he says. Sylvestre had also discovered palm wine fermentation to bond with his grandmother, and from this experience, he became passionate about fermentation. “Today, leveraging my knowledge of fermentation to help cocoa farmers thrive isn’t my job; it’s my life mission.”

Looking back at his successful journey so far, Sylvestre recalls that he started school in a small village in Cameroon, using a tree trunk as a bench to sit on and writing with chalk on a slate resting on his knees. Fast forward to October 2019, he was invited to inaugurate the first primary school funded by Cacao-Trace's Chocolate Bonus in the village of Abdoulayekro in Côte d'Ivoire, which he considers his best professional achievement. Since then, other education infrastructures have been built in Côte d'Ivoire, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam. Cacao Trace's Chocolate Bonus has funded drinkable water equipment projects and maternity facilities as well.

Transparency and traceability are integral to ensure a responsible cocoa supply chain and several global organisations have taken steps in this direction. How is traceability data empowering farming communities? How much of an impact does it have on consumers’ buying decisions?

Sylvestre Awono: Traceability means verifying the history through documented records, and transparency making it easier for others to see what actions are performed. A key point of traceability is to link back to the community and identify the people behind the hard work. Today when we talk about cocoa price, it’s not always what the farmers receive. Most of the time, the price announced is the FOB (Free on Board) price, or the price received by the middlemen, rarely the farmgate price. Traceability data can help by providing more clarity and more guarantee in farmgate price. A move towards transparent farmgate pricing will contribute to the dialogue on farmer income and help to pave the way for farmers to have more power in price negotiations. Today traceability and transparency have not reached their full potential, and the value-added is not clear cut. This needs to be improved, and we are working on that. On the other side of things, consumers ask for traceability, and there is increased scrutiny on the industry to deliver. Yet, at the same time, traceability comes with a cost, and many consumers are still not ready to pay for it.

We are interested to learn more about Puratos’ sustainable entrepreneurship. Could you tell us about your six sustainable pillars and in what ways the company contributes to the UN SDGs?

Sylvestre Awono: We aim to embed our social responsibilities into our entire value chain, going from sourcing raw materials up to the use of our products by customers and consumers. As a responsible food company, we feel that it is essential to deliver a life-changing social contribution in all locations in which we operate. Our six sustainable pillars are:
  1. Environment: Carbon neutrality, water management, food waste, and non-food waste (carbon insetting, solar panels, fish ponds, long freshness of bread)
  2. Responsible sourcing: Sustainable raw materials, ethical suppliers, and traceability (fruit supply, cocoa supply with Cacao-Trace, palm oil, and animal welfare)
  3. Health and wellbeing: Food quality and safety, nutritional value for food, clean(er) food, healthy diet awareness, sustainable innovation, and product development (Sensobus & Taste Tomorrow, key principles for Health & wellbeing)
  4. Heritage: Preservation of bakery and chocolate (chocolate museums and sourdough library)
  5. People: Employee health and safety, employee learning and development, business ethic and culture (Puratos Magic family, Puratos University)
  6. Communities: Farmers livelihood, education and jobs opportunities (Bakery schools, Chunca plantations and chocolate bonus)
Our 6 pillars relate to almost every SGD. For Cacao-Trace, the most notable are the following: No Poverty (1), Good Health and Wellbeing (3) Quality Education (4), Responsible consumption and production (12), Climate action (13), Partnership for the goals (17) will provide the following positive effects. No Poverty (1): The innovative approach of value creation and value sharing increases farmer revenue through Quality Premium and partly Chocolate Bonus. We further add to this with the promotion of diversified income streams and reduced inputs. Good Health and Wellbeing (3), Quality Education (4) & Clean water and sanitation (6): With the Chocolate Bonus, managed by the Next Generation Cocoa Foundation, Cacao-Trace invests in health, education, by building schools, clean water and sanitation, and maternity wards, within the cocoa producer communities from whom we source. Responsible consumption and production (12): Cocoa produced in regenerative agriculture systems is the raw material of chocolate. Thus, it promotes responsible consumption and production, including a holistic agroforestry approach in Cacao-Trace, resulting in improved environmental and social standards. It further enhances farmer’s pride in growing cocoa and thus fighting rural depopulation. Climate action (13): Technology and knowledge transfer for regenerative production creates resilient systems, increasing farmer resilience to climate change effects. Partnership for the goals (17): Cacao-Trace partners with public and private partners to develop innovative solutions to further our impact and reach. Cacao-Trace is a member of Cocoa Forest Initiative, World Cocoa Foundation, and other associations.

Could you give us an effective example of a climate-smart business model for cocoa production?

Sylvestre Awono: A model incorporating agroforestry in cocoa production and conservation of the surrounding environment ensures forests and natural habitats are maintained.Closed-loop farming is less spoken about; however, it is also an approach we are advocating for. Since 2018 we have demoed a closed-loop model with smallholder cocoa farmers in Vietnam, intending to create more value for the farmers by focusing on three key things:
  • increase the income level of cocoa farmers,
  • inclusion of livestock
  • contribute to making the cocoa value chain more sustainable and ecologically friendly.
After 2.5 years of implementing these approaches, we have observed a positive impact. The most notable is reducing 18% of the total farm costs and overall income increase for every farm.

Foreign direct investment and international aid, or partnerships and business relationships: which of the two have a better impact on the sustainable, long-term development of local communities?

Sylvestre Awono:The sustainability and long-term development of local communities generate a series of new activities and new needs. What is crucial is to have an economic model to uphold these activities in the long term, a model which creates value and can be reinvested back. To achieve this, public and private partnerships are essential to realizing fundamental change. We need all stakeholders to contribute and commit to doing things better.

A study suggests that for a 200g packaged milk chocolate bar, cocoa comprises around 10 percent of total costs. When considering how the profits are split, farmers receive a meagre share of 3.5 to 6.5%, comparable to that of advertising (6.5%) and transporters (around 4%), while a significantly larger portion goes to processors and manufacturers (51%) and retailers (28%). How can the stakeholders ensure better profit margins for the primary producers of the raw material so that they can stay motivated to grow better quality cocoa beans and invest further in their farms, skills, and families?

Sylvestre Awono: Today in the chocolate value chain, consumers consider the price they pay sufficient, and buyers, manufacturers, retailers consider their margins well deserved. But there remains one stakeholder, not just any stakeholder, a vital stakeholder, who suffers and cannot make a decent living. It's the farmer. The industry thinks the consumer should pay more for their chocolate to give more to the farmers, and the consumer thinks the sector should lower their margins and give more to the farmers. With Cacao-Trace, we believe there is another way. It consists of:
  • First, create value, a tangible value that people can appreciate and for which they will be willing to pay more to acquire it, resulting in additional revenue.
  • Second, sharing the additional revenue generated from the value creation, specifically to the cocoa farmers who suffer from an imbalance in profit share
In other words, moving towards decommoditizing cocoa creates tangible value by mastering the fermentation that results in superior-tasting chocolate and consistent high quality. This is what we do with Cacao-Trace. The current living conditions of the cocoa farmers are not acceptable. This situation must change. Value creation through fermentation is our solution to address this issue.

What are the benefits of longer-term sourcing relationships for both cocoa producers and buyers?

Sylvestre Awono: Long-term sourcing relationships bring stability and collaboration leading to continuous improvement. Guaranteed offtake and, better yet, transparent pricing models helps reduce the risk for growers and improve negotiation. Moreover, it allows them to make informed decisions on their farm investments. It is also beneficial for buyers to have secure volumes and work with the community on quality expectations and requirements. All in all, every voice must get heard.

How effective and practical are polyculture farming, agroforestry, and other forest-positive initiatives in ensuring higher plant productivity, biodiversity conservation, climate resilience, income diversification and other long-term socio-economic benefits for the farmers? What other major areas of development do you think public- and private-sector organisations should focus on for their sustainable development strategies?

Sylvestre Awono: As long as those forest-positive initiatives do not generate more value for the farmers, the impact of these forest-positive initiatives will be limited. Sustainable production models are fundamental; however, it does not mean that we can cover up that the purchase price universally remains too low. These efforts need to be paired with value creation aiming at increasing the purchased price at farmgate.

Precision agriculture technologies, including remote sensing, satellite-based data, and AI, have made breakthroughs in improving productivity, efficiency, quality, and access to international markets. From your experience, are farmers and businesses quick to adopt digital solutions? What advantages and disadvantages do these technologies offer to the different stakeholders?

Sylvestre Awono: These tools need large scale investments. At a small scale level, farmers will not spend time on it unless there is a profitable return. We see that cocoa farming at a small scale with current pricing dynamics is not a lucrative investment. To make it worthwhile and to increase investment in technology, value creation is a must.

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