Inside of a freshly picked cocoa pod Copy

Inside of a freshly picked cocoa pod Copy

Tumbling down over cobbled stones in the humid murkiness of dense hillside forest, one could be rightly forgiven for not seeing the wood for the trees. Mesmerized by torpedo slim palm trees whose fond’s, far out of reach, exploded out like village fireworks. Rugby-ball shaped jackfruits, and green-skinned breadfruit hung like grotesque lanterns. Down at head height, apparent but so easily overlooked were alien shaped pods, all horizontal and sinister. Breaking one open did not unleash a hive of belligerent insects. On the contrary, the sweet cotton white flesh, coating a cone of compressed seeds, elicited a childish joy when tasted — a light creamy substance of cacao (cocoa), with its subtle hints of chocolate.

Pins indicating the Cacao plantations on Sao Tome

Pins indicating the Cacao plantations on Sao Tome

The islands of Sao Tome & Principe remained uninhabited until Portuguese explorers Toao de Santarem, and Pedro Escobar discovered them in 1470. Expelled by the inquisition, new Christians arrived to help in its colonization. The original emphasis lay on the production of coffee, funding the island’s economy whose labour derived from slavery. But by 1875, with the effect of abolition and the immediate aftermath of labour shortages, the coffee industry suffered a huge setback. Slave labour came from the African mainland, initially brought across to plant sugar cane. Though within sixty years, Brazil’s industry had overtaken production in Sao Tome. The islands then became a slaveholding centre for the main trans-Atlantic voyage to Brazil and the Caribbean.

With all the focus on coffee, cacao development had been left in the shadows. The islands rich volcanic soil married with an ideal climate offered excellent growing conditions. Once focus had shifted to cacao production, Sao Tome and Principe soon became the worlds leading exporters. Strongly threatening output in South America.

Fermentation bins and drying on long tables

Fermentation bins and drying on long tables

Abolition did not sweep away the oppressive conditions despite outward declarations by the Portuguese. Concerned by increasing news of corruption, prohibited forms of recruitment and continued treatment equal to slavery, William Cadbury spearheaded an investigation into Sao Tome & Principe’s cacao plantations. Pressurization on Lisbon towards overhauling the labour system was met with hesitant but guaranteed assurances -however little changed. In 1908, three years after Joseph Burtt commenced his investigation on behalf of William Cadbury into labour standards on the island’s plantations, the report was made public. It critically harangued the system which operated on ‘de-facto’ slavery. In an alliance with Rowntree and Fry’s, Cadbury boycotted all cacao beans in Portuguese colonies. Promising, until radical change regarding recruitment and living conditions came into effect, that the boycott would stay. World attention through press coverage and the consumer might of industry giants did lobby some humanitarian change. A first of its kind.

Adding a few beans to humility recorder

Adding a few beans to humility recorder

Not everything improved, typical smiles and eternal friendships masked intrigue and insincerity. ‘Sopaira o ingles ver’ scoffed the Portuguese, ‘Just for the Englishman to see.’ Still said today to reference something ‘merely for show.’   

  In 39 years from 1900 to the beginning of  WWII, world trade in cacao had increased by 800%.  -rising from 100,000 tonnes to 786,000 tonnes.

Roca Monte Forte on Sao Tome’s west coast is a small scale family-run plantation, one of many that are part of CECAB (Co-operativa de Producao de Cacau Biologico) — continuing the process from the Portuguese whose buildings are still used for the same purpose.

Harvested when yellow, the cacao pods are halved lengthways and the beans extracted. The first stage is fermentation from where the beans are placed in large wooden bins, three rows long with two days in each. A layer of banana leaves covers the beans to contain the fermentation, which improves the overall quality. After six days the beans are transferred to long wooden tables to dry (turning a dark red) for a further week. For export, the beans must reach a humility of 6.5. If after nine days the beans fail to reach this target they are removed to electric drying machines. Finally, any defects and broken shells are removed by hand before placing into sacks weighing a precise 70.200kg each (the 200g covers the bags own weight). The finished sacks are exported to KAOKA, a French company in Le Pontet.

Scanning the cocoa beans for defects and test tray

Scanning the cocoa beans for defects and test tray

 

Facts:

For European citizens, a visa is not required for stays of 15 days or less. It’s worth carrying a Yellow Fever Certificate though I was never asked once for it, even on arrival at the airport. They now last for life, and most African Countries will ask to see it. It also forms part of the necessary documentation when applying for a visa in Africa.

Being a former Portuguese colony means the island is served by Tap Airlines (www.flytap.com) with onward flights via Lisbon and perhaps Accra in Ghana with return flights starting at 882 euros.  Ceiba-Equatorial Guinea’s national airline also serves Sao Tome several times a week as well as TAAG – Angola Airlines.

A yellow taxi from the airport into Sao Tome town will cost 3 euros in a shared vehicle or 10 euros for a private charter, for the 15-minute journey.

sacks ready for export to France

sacks ready for export to France

The currency is the dobra with a rate of 25 to 1 euro. You can not obtain them outside the islands. Changing on the street will get you a much better rate than the banks which offer less. Money changers hang around the Praca da Independencia, Praca Amizade and the market. It is worth having euro cash as this is readily accepted as well. Dollars are a second option.  There are no ATM’s that accept Visa or Mastercard yet, and only dispense dobra’s to residents.

Roca Monte Forte: +239 9911362 / 9954486  www.airbnb.com

Currently, it is advertising through Airbnb for £26 per night (£4 service fee) which includes a good-sized breakfast. Rooms are self-contained with fan and mosquito nets. The views out across the slopes to Ponto Sao Tome, the islands highest mountain are remarkable. A rolling landscape of forest down to the sea. There is a fine wooden terrace to enjoy a drink and watch slow life unfold. The sea is a ten-minute walk away with a small lava sand beach. The sea is clear, warm and safe with no strong current that often hinders other African beaches.

Meals (approx 8 euros) are substantial, generally fresh fish with either rice, steamed banana, cassava, or spaghetti. Followed by fresh fruits such as jackfruit, mango, papaya and pineapple. Both beer and wine are available.

Guided walks can be organized to Geniorolol further up the slopes and onwards to Ponto Figo. Both beautiful with the former offering magnificent views across the hills and out to the ocean. Nearby are waterfalls, half a dozen Portuguese built tunnels and the plantation Roca Ponta Figo which is open for viewing. A tour of Monte Fortes plantation costs 10 euros. The harvesting season is around September when the plantation really comes to life.

Reaching Roca Monte Forte from Sao Tome can be easily done by public transport to Neves, the nearest town. Bright yellow shared taxis or minivans depart from the main taxi park close to the central market. The journey takes an hour and costs 30 dobras (factoring in your luggage). From Neves, it’s a further four kilometres which can be done by paying the driver extra or switching to a motoquieros (motorbike taxi – 20 dobra).

Several vehicle hire companies operate in Sao Tome, popular with families and groups — allowing you to explore much more of the island beyond the transport network.