Following the Cacao & Chocolate trail in Madagascar: The Sambirano River Valley

Published On: August 15, 20236.1 min read

Our second part of our trip to Madagascar took us to Ambanja and the Sambirano Valley in the northwest of the world’s oldest island. 

The Conseil National Cacao of Madagascar – CNC –kindly organized a day visit for the ICCO Ad Hoc Panel members who decided to stay on after the meeting. First stop: the centralized fermentation station of the Koperativa Sambirano Manongalaza – KOSAMA. This small cooperative proudly showed their fermentation center where the wet mass collected from its members is fermented in a tiered wooden box system and dried on patios.

Breaking pods on site at the central fermentary of KOSAMA Cooperative

The CNC supports farmers with training and promotes cacao cultivation in an agroforestry scheme in order to make their farms more resilient to the effects of climate change and to safeguard the island’s endangered biodiversity. 

An important part of these efforts were demonstrated at the nursery and germplasm garden run by the CNC in Ambanja. Cultivars are developed and distributed to small holder farmers from this nursery.

Our final stop took brought us to the Cacao Evaluation Center and CNC administrative offices. Quality controls are done by JLB Expertises on representative samples of each and every lot of cacao exported from Madagascar. Even though at the moment of writing the analysis done is only physical, there are plans in place to perform sensory evaluations of the samples.

The proud ladies behind the quality checks of hundreds of samples.



Our home base for the trip to Ambanja was the historical plantation Millot, where we spent our nights at their very own B& B: Maison du Planteur.

Spot my roommate: the rich biodiversity of the island is found everywhere!


Mr. Bruno Dunoyer, Director of the 1500 hectare plantation, filled our days and nights with cacao facts and stories. In the evening, the stories were accompanied by the most delicious dishes prepared at their kitchen with local ingredients.

Bruno’s deep knowledge, charisma, experience and sense of humour added an extra dimension to our visits with him.

Lucien Millot, a native of Nantua in East France, immigrated to Madagascar in 1901. He started a plantation where he harvested  coffee, coconut trees, cassava, pepper and vanilla. He also distilled citronella and ylang-ylang]. In 1920 he introduced cacao trees to the plantation from the Botanic Garden of Buitenzorg in Java.

For over a century, the Millot Plantation supplied cocoa to the great chocolate talents in Europe. Nowadays, they produce cacao exclusively for Valrhona’s Majari chocolate line.

Drying patio and tables at the extensive post harvesting facility at Millot


Millot employs more than 800 people, the majority of them women. The plantation also supports the village school, which most of the employees’ children attend. A converted bus will soon serve as a nursery to take care of working mothers’ babies and infant children.


We wake up to yet another beautiful sunny morning in Ambanja and make the drive to Bertil Åkesson’s plantation.

Bright smiles on a bright sunny morning: two women tend to the drying cacao.


Millot’s original property was split into parcels. One of these parcels was bought in the 70’s by a Swedish trader and ex-diplomat by the name of Carl Gustaf Bertil Åkesson. 

Nowadays Bertil is the proud bearer of his father’s cacao heritage and produces top quality cacao at the Åkesson Organic Plantation (formerly known as Sagit). The plantation is spread across 5,300 hectares. 

Vanilla, coffee and pepper are also grown along cacao. Ylang ylang, vetiver and other aromatic plants are other crops grown by AO. The plants and flowers are distilled on their own property and exported to the global perfume industry.

Ylang ylang trees on one of AO’s many extensive properties along the valley

Women prepare aromatic plants for distillation


This last leg of our cacao trip was an extra special treat to me. Back in 2017, I met the then Director of MAVA S.A., Thomas Wenisch, in Amsterdam.  He was promoting the cacao produced on the MAVA farms. We tried them all, one by one. All the flavours  were quite distinct, quite different from the “classical” profile we all knew and loved. Right then and there I knew we had to share this cacao with the rest of the world to promote the flavour diversity on the island. And since then, we have been proudly collaborating with MAVA.

A dream 6 years in the making! From left to right: Thomas Wenisch, former Director of MAVA S.A., fellow ICCO Ad Hoc Expert panelists Nubia Martínex, Julien Simonis, Hery Ralaimiza, current Director of MAVA S.A., a happy me and fellow panelist Adriana Arciniegas.


Ottange is one of eight plantations ditstributed across 635 hectares of land owned and operated by MAVA S.A. since 2015. This former state-owned property is partly owned by Chocolat Madagascar, an entirely Malagasy operation owned by the Ramanandraibe family. As owners of Chocolaterie Robert, the family has contributed for decades to the economic and industrial revival of Madagascar. This led them to bid fiercely against other parties in order to purchase these lands. Chocolat Madagascar believes that by increasing their world class chocolate production, they can keep supporting the creation of new jobs and opportunities for their local communities.

The Ottange Farm is the smallest of the eight farms and is nested along the shores of the Ramena River. All cacao trees are grown organically in an a traditional agroforestry system. The annual production volume of the farm is approximately 6 tons, much of which is used by Chocolat Madagascar for their single plantation chocolate bars.

A cooperative and three of the biggest exporters of fine flavour cacao from Madagascar all share the same objective and share the same challenges. They want to keep promoting the flavours and diversity of Malagasy cacao. But they are also faced with the very real threats posed by climate change. 

The CNC’s plans to expand cacao production on the island to 25.000 metric tonnes by 2025 might have to face the challenge of climate change-induced migration. As the southern part of Madagascar is experiencing prolonged drought, an influx of migration from the south would put the cultivable lands in the north under pressure. 

What the future will bring about is still uncertain, but a certainty remains: Madagascar is proud of its cacao roots and is deeply committed to keep producing high quality fine flavour cocoa for the world.

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