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Sourcing more ethical cocoa with the Rainforest Alliance

We go to the ends of the earth to find the finest cocoa growing climates, from Samoa to Nicaragua to Ghana. But we believe quality isn’t just about taste, it’s about the conditions our beans are grown in. That means asking questions like: Were sustainable farming practices used? What was the human impact on farmers and their communities?  And being fully transparent about the answers, because – as a many of us know – there are real challenges to address in the global cocoa industry.

Matt Whittaker, co-Chief Operating Officer at Whittaker’s explains, “We source ingredients in New Zealand where we can, but cocoa beans are one ingredient we have to source from overseas. Cocoa often comes from developing countries, and as a result, there can be a big disconnect between how cocoa is grown, the conditions people live in and the end consumer where it’s a luxury treat. So this is where ethical sourcing comes in.”

What is ethical sourcing?
For us, it’s about making sure that the ingredients we use are grown and harvested in way which is more sustainable for the planet. But it’s also about making sure our farmers are treated and paid more fairly. 

At Whittaker’s, we’ve been working on sourcing ethical cocoa for some time. Our 5 Roll Refined Creamy Milk 250g block has been crafted from ethically sourced Ghanaian cocoa beans since 2010, joined by our 72% Dark Ghana 250g block in 2014. But, we wanted to do better. So we’re excited to announce we’re extending that commitment! With the help of the Rainforest Alliance all our Ghanaian cocoa beans are now 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified™.

The Rainforest Alliance model means the significant additional investment we’re making benefits cocoa farmers in Ghana specifically, and this is paired with their rigorous approach to sustainable agricultural practices. “We love that the Rainforest Alliance focuses on both the planet and the people, as the wellbeing of our farmers – our people, is just as important”, says Matt.

What is the Rainforest Alliance?  

The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organization working at the crossroads of business, agriculture, and forestry. Founded in 1987, they look at how an ingredient is produced and then trace it through a supply chain. For example, tracing a sack of cocoa beans from a farm in Ghana to our factory in Porirua.

The Rainforest Alliance also provides a certification framework for businesses – including chocolate makers like us! If a product has received certification it’s shown by a seal on pack. This seal means a farm or forest has been independently audited by a third-party and met their sustainability standards. The Rainforest Alliance seal is a frog and there’s a good reason why! Frogs are an indicator species, so their presence or absence can reflect how healthy an environment is.

Look for the frog on pack!

What impact have the Rainforest Alliance had?

Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farmers use land, water and energy carefully to protect natural resources, and use tools and techniques that produce better quality crops. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms are also safer places to work where human rights must be respected and farmers must be paid fairly. 

Day-to-day in Ghana, this looks like:

  • Working towards gender equality. By providing the right training, female cocoa farmers like Vida Tsatso Boaful feel able to speak up and share their knowledge when working with men.
  • Addressing child labour. This has been an issue for some cocoa growing countries. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farmers must not use forced labour or child labour. Field representatives work with farming communities to ensure this rule is maintained. For example, by checking school attendance records. If time is missed, they’ll reach out to the families to find out why and see what support they need.
  • Helping farmers adapt to the effects of changing climates. Countries in West Africa are on the front lines of climate change. Drought, disease and pests can ruin crops and the ability for farmers to earn an income. The Rainforest Alliance helps implement climate-smart agriculture which looks at weather trends and how farming techniques need to adjust.
  • Reducing the use of agrochemicals. For Rainforest Alliance, managing arthropod pests, diseases, and weeds is part of climate-smart agriculture and holistic approach to ecosystem management. An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach is followed in order to reduce the use of pesticides by strengthening and balancing the functions of the agro-ecosystem. As part of the programme for integrated pest and disease management, farmers are trained on how to reduce the use of agrochemicals that cause negative impacts to human health.

These are just a few examples! Discover the full scope of what they do at the Rainforest Alliance website.

Data accurate as of 2021 (source:

Our Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa bean cooperatives 

A cocoa bean cooperative is a group of farmers who have decided to work together in a specific area. By pooling their knowledge and resources, they work towards goals that benefit the group as a whole. 

It was important for us to choose cooperatives that we could collaborate with long-term. So when searching for the right fit, we kept three things in mind:    

  • How long have they been certified? Rainforest Alliance certification isn’t easy to get or maintain, so if a cooperative has been certified for a number of years, it shows a commitment to values we share.
  • How large is the cooperative? Forming long-term relationships with large cooperatives (for example, one with 100,000 or more members) can be challenging. Smaller cooperatives allow us to build more personal relationships.
  • How can we go the extra mile? Cocoa bean cooperatives often struggle to find buyers willing to pay the extra certification premium for their beans. This can lead to farmers leaving cooperatives and cocoa production altogether. We pay our farmers fair premiums for the beans they produce. This provides financial stability, but is there an opportunity for us to do more?

In 2019, we visited farmers from cooperatives all over Ghana. With a better understanding of how cocoa production affects their livelihoods, community and environment, we decided to build relationships with two medium-sized cocoa bean cooperatives: Assin Fosu and Asankragwa. We visited Ghana again in 2022, and established a relationship with a third cooperative: Tarkwa-Huni Valley.

Here’s a little bit about them!

Assin Fosu Cooperative, Central Ghana

The Assin Fosu cooperative is made up of 870 farmers from 17 villages. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ for over 10 years, they’re passionate about good agricultural practices. They’ve seen the results too! The amount of cocoa they harvest per hectare is 42% to 50% higher than the average plantation in Ghana. 

How large is a hectare? 
A hectare is 10,000 square metres, or about the size of an international rugby field.

In some villages, Assin Fosu farmers also grow a small amount of cassava (a root vegetable similar in shape to kumara). The workers, who are mainly female, are very skilled at peeling cassava at high speed, using small, sharp machetes. It’s quite a thing to watch!

Afua Otsaba, a farmer from Assin Fosu Co-operative sorts the cocoa beans.

Tarkwa-Huni Valley Cooperative

The Tarkwa-Huni Valley cooperative achieved Rainforest Alliance Certified™ status in July 2022, coming on board as a Whittaker's supplier soon after. Slightly bigger than Assin Fosu, the Tarkwa-Huni Valley Cooperative is made up of 881 farmers from 18 villages. Around half of the farms are 3 hectares or less!

Asankragwa Cooperative, South-West Ghana

The largest cooperative Whittaker's sources from, the Asankragwa Cooperative, is made up of 671 farmers from 25 different villages. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ since 2010, their farms are well known for their trees! Some have as many as 80 trees per hectare, which is much higher than the regional average of 12-18. Thomas Amoah, a cocoa farmer in the Akokofe community, has 152 trees on his 2 hectares!

We believe these cooperatives are a great fit for Whittaker’s and we look forward to finding new ways to help them – in addition to our work with the Rainforest Alliance.

Ethically sourced cocoa and beyond

We have just completed our first audit for the Rainforest Alliance. This audit checks that the cocoa beans we receive at our factory came from certified cooperatives in Ghana. Our paperwork is then checked by an independent third-party. This step is crucial for both our Chocolate Lovers and our team here at Whittaker’s so we can be confident that what we claim on pack actually happens.

Whittaker’s and the Rainforest Alliance, what’s next?

100% ethically sourced cocoa is just one part of our relationship with the Rainforest Alliance. Working together over the past few years, we have achieved 100% traceability to farm level! We did this by investing in geo-mapping all of the Ghanian farms we source from, helping to ensure our beans are ethically and sustainably sourced from farm to factory.

What is traceability?
Traceability means there is trail we can follow that shows the origin of where our beans came from. For example, in a warehouse full of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa beans, we will be able to pinpoint which specific Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farm a bag came from.

This is easier in some countries than others. For example, the supply chain in Ghana is more complex than in Samoa where we can directly import from a family-owned plantation. So we’re keen to do what we can to bring more visibility to the process. We might be around 16,000km away, but we’re never too far to lend a hand.

We’ll also be on the ground in Ghana regularly to strengthen our connections with our farmers and their communities.

Chocolate Lovers, save the date!

You’ll start seeing the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal on Whittaker’s 250g blocks from 2020. We will be adding it to the rest of our range too but we don’t want to create unnecessary waste, so it’ll be added as our existing packaging is used up. Remember to look for the frog!

Got a question about ethical sourcing? Get in touch.