Cashew Value Chain Part 1: Cracking Through the Production of Cashew Nuts

As showcased in our Red River Food Case Study, Farmforce has already had a fair crack at digitising cashew nut farms in Ghana. Here, we aim to give a more comprehensive picture of the cashew nut supply chain.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Cashew Nut Value Chain

While being native to Brazil, cashew cultivation went nuts over the last few centuries. Today, cashew nuts are also grown in several African countries, ranging from Côte d’Ivoire to Burundi, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and Benin. You may also find this crop in Asia, with plantations in Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Thailand. As of 2020, India was the world’s largest producer of cashew nuts, with a global share of ca. 23%. On the other hand, India mostly imports cashews from Côte d’Ivoire, which is the world’s biggest cashew nut harvester

Harvesting Cashew Nuts Out of Fake Apples

Because of its valuable properties (and therefore high price), cashew nuts were dubbed ‘white gold’. So, where can you go hunting it? 

Cashew nuts are growing on the Anacardium occidentale tree, these trees reach up to 12 metres in height. At first sight, you may think it’s an apple tree. Get a little closer and you’ll see a small kidney-shaped protuberance hanging from the bottom of the so-called ‘cashew apple.’ That’s the raw cashew nut. 

The pseudo-apples appear 3 years after planting the tree, whose productivity peaks during the 10th year. As the apple matures, it will change colour from green to yellow or red, all while the cashew nut shell becomes grey. When you see this chromatic combination, you’ll know the time is ripe for the picking. A more gravity-driven sign of maturity is to see the fruit laying on the floor. Rather than directly from trees, farmers usually collect the raw cashew nuts from the ground.

Cashew nut harvesting happens once a year but its timing will change with location. For instance, farmers in the northern hemisphere (e.g., India, Vietnam, Côte d’Ivoire) will gather cashew nuts during the first 6 months of the year. Instead, below the equator (e.g. Brazil, Tanzania), growers will harvest their produce mostly between September and December.

White Gold Extraction in a Nutshell

Once removed from the cashew apple, the in-shell nuts, a.k.a. drupe, will go through several processing steps. Let’s deshell the main ones below, shell we?

  • Pre-Shelling: This is the shell prep stage, including substeps such as drying. To preserve their quality, farmers sun-dry unshelled nuts immediately after harvesting them for up to 3 days to reduce their moisture content from 25 to 9%. After that, they are bagged and delivered to a factory. Here they’re unbagged and mixed for further treatment. As mentioned in our Value Chain articles for cocoa beans and coffee cherries, this step introduces a production traceability gap. At the processing plant, personnel typically roast the unshelled cashew nuts in an open pan or drum to facilitate the extraction of the kernel, i.e., the edible part. 
  • Shelling: This is the signature step for this type of supply chain and is country-specific. For example, in Vietnam,  a leading cashew nut processor, workers rely on automatic equipment for deshelling. In Africa they use hand- or pedal-operated machines, thus implying a more labour-intensive operation. This is why African farmers export 90% of their in-shell cashew nuts to Vietnam and India.
  • Peeling: After shelling, you’re left with the kernel, representing only around 20% of the crop’s initial total weight. Peelers then remove the so-called testa, or husk, this is the skin covering the kernel.
  • Grading: Before being packed for export, graders sort peeled cashew nuts by condition (whole or split), colour (white or brown), and size. According to the Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology, this procedure can lead to up to 24 grades.

A Few Unsustainable Nuts to Crack Along Cashew’s First Mile

Although its nickname evokes wealth, cashew farmers are not reaping the financial benefits of their white gold. In fact, the cashew farming profit is much lower than what traders make. One reason could be, they can harvest them for up to 6 months. This means they won’t have an income source for the rest of the year. Accordingly, they spend a fortune (over $65,000/year for some Indian farmers) to stock up their surplus and sell it during the non-harvesting months. On top of that, an underdeveloped or not existing processing infrastructure is penalising African growers. In 2018, exporters sold cashew processed in India at a 250% higher price than that paid to Ivorian farmers. 

Now, don’t go nuts with the fact that cashew embarks on an intercontinental journey from Africa to Asia, just for deshelling. Besides stripping African growers of their cashew economic value, this high-carbon footprint is fueling climate change. Ironically, again, global warming will make cashew nut cultivation even less profitable for smallholder farmers. Researchers recently found out that climate change will shrink the optimal land for growing cashew nuts, with a reduction of up to 100% in Benin by 2050. This will compromise smallholder farming activities and undermine their livelihood.

Deforestation is another climate-related food supply chain issue to consider. Such is the case in India, where government subsidies have driven the expansion of cashew monocultures at the expense of trees over the last 40 years. Another study found a clear correlation between the development of cashew nut farms and forest loss increase. In Côte d’Ivoire, cashew nut plantations were introduced in the 1960s as a reforestation method. Sadly, enough, they’re now doing quite the opposite.

Conclusions

Fostering sustainable food supply chain management for cashew is not a piece of ‘nut’ cake. However, if you’re feeling shell shock, read the second part of our cashew series. We are discussing how Farmforce AgTech is digitising cashew farmers, thus improving their income while enhancing production traceability along the first mile!