Almost lying on the equator, some 150 miles off the west coast of Africa, is the continent's second smallest nation, São Tomé and Príncipe. The two main islands are just under 90 miles apart but share not only a common past under Portuguese colonial rule but a promising future as growers of some of the best quality cocoa in the world.
Before discovery by the Portuguese in the early 1470s the islands, legacy of an extinct volcanic mountain range, were uninhabited by humans. Settlers soon realised that the rich volcanic soil was perfect for agriculture. Slaves were transported from the African mainland, at first for the purpose of cultivating sugar, though by the early 1800s coffee and cocoa had been introduced and within a century São Tomé had emerged as the number one global producer of cocoa.
It was 1975 before this tiny nation gained independence, cocoa remaining the principle cash crop. Such reliance on a single commodity led to real problems in 1998, when less cocoa was produced and world cocoa prices fell simultaneously. While the islands have since ventured into tourism as an important second source of revenue, cocoa production was given a new lease of life when at the turn of the new century an audit of the country's cocoa industry discovered that the rich genetic origin of the varieties grown there could be used to produce the very highest quality beans, which would in turn provide higher and more stable prices. It was also noted that the traditional farming practices used could easily accommodate organic production. Farmers capitalised on these advantages and business is booming. Aficionados here in the UK can try out the very best in hot chocolate, as links have been forged between Fairtrade company Cafédirect and farmers in São Tomé to produce a luxury instant hot chocolate drink. I found it in Waitrose and it has a satisfyingly deep, rich flavour.