AMBANJA-A massive zebu cow lumbers out of the tropical forest in Ambanja in the north of Madagascar carrying a heavy cartful of cocoa pods destined to become some of the most expensive chocolate in the world.

"These red ones here, they're of the Criollo variety, the most sought-after cocoa in the world," says Cyrille Ambarahova, a local small-scale farmer.

Standing in the middle of his single hectare of cocoa trees - "100 percent organic", he says - Ambarahova uses a long, hooked stick to harvest only the most mature pods.

Cocoa arrived in Madagascar in the 1900s, and today is still a low-volume export compared with the country's coffee, vanilla and shellfish production.

With an annual production of 7,000 tonnes, Madagascar is still a dwarf in the global cocoa market.

But the variety of the crop found on the island - the prized Criollo - has earned Madagascar a reputation for high-quality cocoa.

And unlike the other luxury crop on the island, vanilla, cocoa can be harvested year-round.

In Ambanja, where tuk-tuk rickshaws easily outnumber cars, the rhythm of life is dictated by the cocoa market.

The zebu's cargo was offloaded in Ambarahova's backyard, and the process of cracking the pods and extracting the beans began.

Sticky and white, it was difficult to imagine they end up as fine chocolate.

Next, they are sold to collectors commissioned by large chocolate producers but small-scale producers complain they have little say in the going price.

- Unfair trade? -

Ambarahova joined a cooperative with several colleagues to negotiate higher prices, but their efforts have borne little fruit.

On the day AFP visited Ambarahova's farm, one international chocolate maker had bought his weekly harvest for 2,600 ariary (80 US cents, 0.75 euros) a kilogramme.

"The price that collectors pay now, it's not the true price," rails fellow farmer Remi Jaofeno. "The price should be tripled, then it would be the right price."

A few kilometres away, on the 635-hectare (1,570-acre) Mava cocoa plantation, the era of the zebu has long since passed and staff zip between the trees in 4x4s.

Here, the cocoa is processed along an efficient factory line: an all-male team picks the pods, an all-female team cracks them open, and a third team sorts them into large outdoor trays.

Drying out in the open air, the beans begin to give off the strong smell of the chocolate they will become.


"We consider Madagascar to be one of the paradises of cocoa of the world," says plantation manager Thomas Wenisch.

"We are relatively free from disease because of our isolation from the rest of the world, and our fairly severe dry season helps slow down the development of mould."

But for all its advantages, Madagascar's role in chocolate production largely ends there.

The bulk of the harvest is exported and processed abroad into the fine chocolate that in the streets of Paris can sell for close to 5 euros ($5) per 100-gram slab.

The little that remains on the island is processed in the capital Antananarivo and sold back to the few locals who can afford it.

"Most of the world's chocolate is made with a cocoa that is not fine cocoa," says Wenisch.

"And the companies selling it are the big ones - Lindt, Craft, Suchard, Mars - they make chocolate bars, sweets. And they're pushing to bring down the price of cocoa."

Philippe Bastide, a cocoa expert at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, says the costs involved in buying and transporting the cocoa did not justify the profit margins that the large manufacturers enjoy.