Sweet Tales of Melanesia
A quiet revolution is underway in Melanesia where chocolate makers and cocoa exporters have started producing high quality Pacific cocoa beans and products for export to the world’s top markets.
Slowly but surely in small, sweet, often painstaking steps, a quiet revolution has been taking place on the shores of Melanesia.
Despite a pandemic and the day-to-day challenges of adding value to Pacific export commodities, chocolate makers and cocoa exporters in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have been quietly leading the charge, taking high quality Pacific cocoa beans and products to the world’s top markets.
This extraordinary achievement is in part the result of the success, as well as some of the hard lessons, learnt over the past decade from the innovative work supported by the Australian and New Zealand Governments through the jointly funded Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus Program or PHAMA Plus.
PHAMA Plus works with the private and public sectors, supporting export businesses and sometimes whole industries to identify and develop innovative ways to create opportunities for access to new international markets for the region’s agricultural products.
In PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu, the Program has partnered with three local chocolate makers and cocoa exporters, supporting them to expand their access to export markets by improving both the quality of their products as well as linkages to premium markets. This support has come in the form of a highly tailored and timely combination of financial and technical assistance which has helped each of the chocolate makers to craft a pipeline for entry into the global boutique cocoa and chocolate markets.
All three businesses have been able to enhance their chocolate-making, through the provision of industry-specific equipment, technical advice and market linkages. This has enabled them to expand their range of cocoa and chocolate products and with it their access to high quality premium markets in Europe, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
‘The Cathliro Way’
In the Solomon Islands, where there are over 18,000 cocoa-farming households, PHAMA Plus’ partner is Cathliro Commodities Development, founded by local businesswoman, Diana Yates.
In the past few years, Cathliro has emerged as an industry leader in boutique cocoa exports. From 2017 when the journey started with the export of a small batch of 200 kg quality beans to the UK to three years later, in 2020 with total shipments of almost 70 metric tonne (MT).
The Cathliro success story is a significant milestone for the entire Solomon Islands cocoa sector, proving that producers can successfully produce smoke-taint free cocoa beans and that exporters can source high quality beans from these farmers, giving suppliers like Cathliro the potential to penetrate the boutique cocoa market.
Cathliro has also started producing value-added products like un-tempered chocolate, cocoa nibs, cocoa husks, 100% cocoa, roasted peeled beans, and cocoa powder which all have a unique flavour.
In 2020, PHAMA Plus helped Cathliro to identify potential buyers in the premium cocoa market and to help the company to send trial shipments. By early 2021 Cathliro’s network of premium buyers had expanded to six.
Although the pandemic border closures and shipping crisis has since taken its toll, with most of last year’s quality beans ultimately sold on the bulk market for lower prices, Diana is quietly proud of her team’s achievements.
“Our expansion into the premium market has not only helped us receive a higher price for quality beans, but it has also allowed the company to pay a higher price to farmers for both wet and dry beans in recognition of their ability sustain higher quality during production and the post-harvest process,” she says.
“PHAMA Plus has supported us with our equipment to downstream our cocoa and helped us with sourcing international markets – we have exported beans to Belgium, UK and also New Zealand.”
In addition, Cathliro has also received support from another Australian funded program, Strongim Bisnis as well as the World Bank’s Rural Development Program.
Chocolate made from PNG’s finest cocoa
In neighboring PNG, Queen Emma Chocolate, owned by local food leader Paradise Foods Limited, began experimenting with processing high quality PNG cocoa into chocolate several years ago for the domestic market. High demand led Paradise to open a dedicated chocolate factory in 2016 which now employs 50 people, many of them women and includes some workers who are living with disabilities.
According to Queen Emma’s Managing Director, Karina Makoi, the flexibility and responsiveness of PHAMA Plus’ support, especially in the crucial early years has made all the difference.
“I’ve had to run this division with very little budget, so the support we’ve had from PHAMA Plus has been very, very useful,” says Karina. “It is always very targeted.”
“Recently we were trying to get some new customers on board and PHAMA Plus was able to support us with some trial shipments,” says Karina.
“Most of them are small boutique chocolate suppliers, so they may be unsure about our product until they have a chance to try it, so the high shipping costs are a real barrier, but when PHAMA Plus stepped in they were willing to give us go.”
Queen Emma now has repeat orders from some of the customers who received the sample shipments.
The company takes pride in its diverse workforce and recently championed a more inclusive environment for factory staff who are hard of hearing by implementing sign language training for its workers, an initiative supported by PHAMA Plus to promote gender and social inclusion in among businesses.
Before PHAMA Plus’ involvement in the sector, Pacific cocoa was invariably sold into the world bulk commodity market at low prices, making it one of the region’s top agricultural export commodities by volume but at the other end of the supply chain, generating only a meagre return for most smallholder cocoa farming households.
The large, often foreign-owned, bulk exporters had no real incentive to do the painstakingly detailed work required to encourage and support local farmers to change their cultivation and post-harvest processes to lift the quality of the region’s usually low grade, smoke-tainted beans to achieve a better price.
Working through their three local partners, who were already buying locally grown beans, PHAMA Plus has been able to support the introduction of farming and harvesting practices and equipment such as solar driers that have significantly improved the quality and price of the dried beans being supplied, which in turn has improved and streamlined incomes of smallholders.
Quality beans, quality ‘chocolat’
With an established factory and iconic store front on Port Vila’s main street, Vanuatu’s Gaston Chocolat’s close relationship with its network of rural cocoa suppliers made it an obvious choice for a partnership with PHAMA Plus.
Over the past few years, PHAMA Plus has partnered with Gaston to improve the sourcing and processing of quality cocoa beans to meet the food safety and quality standards that will enable them to succeed in high-quality premium export markets.
“It’s a little-known secret of chocolate making that the final flavours of high-quality chocolate are developed in the field through the cocoa bean fermentation and drying process,” says Gaston co-founder Olivia Fernandez, who has been using pure single origin Vanuatu cocoa to produce fine chocolates since 2017.
“We decided from day one to work with the cocoa growers and handle the whole harvest and post-harvest process, from the fruits on the trees to turning them into chocolate bars.”
In 2020, in an effort to boost local supplies of smoke-taint free high quality cocoa beans, PHAMA Plus supported Gaston to procure and distribute solar dryers to four of its main suppliers. While COVID-19 related delays slowed this process, Gaston is now regularly obtaining high-quality premium beans from three of their four key farmers.
Since the new solar dryers and fermentation boxes were established, the average price the company is willing to pay for the higher quality beans has jumped to just over AUD4 per kg. This is at least 40 per cent higher than other premium buyers in Vanuatu and almost double what farmers could expect to get from bulk buyers.
This is a big win for the cocoa farmers, who are ultimately the real beneficiaries of the Program; the end goal always being to improve the livelihoods of the region’s farming households.
PHAMA Plus also works with regional governments and regulatory authorities to facilitate the sometimes complex, biosecurity compliance regime required for agricultural exports as well as supporting individual companies to navigate these requirements.
In Gaston’s case, the program has been able to support the company through the complexities of applying for two gateway certifications: the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) certificate and B-Corp. Ultimately these certifications will pave the way for the company to sell its cocoa products at premium prices in new markets in Australia, New Zealand and USA where either HACCP or B-Corp certifications are required.
On its part, Gaston has invested more than AUD300,000 in new equipment and a new processing facility that can meet HACCP and B-Corp certification standards.
Despite the considerable challenges of the past few years, the satisfaction and enthusiasm of all three of PHAMA Plus chocolate-making and cocoa exporting partners, is palpable.
Queen Emma’s Karina sums it up well: “My advice to would-be Pacific chocolate makers is: Go for it!
“We have really good cocoa that we grow in the Pacific, much of it is not converted and it just gets shipped away and blended, so having products that are a local value-added product made with local high-quality beans, that is something to call our own, something to really be proud of.”
For more information about our work in cocoa the Pacific, please reach out to:
- PHAMA Plus Country Manager PNG Sidney Suma on email@example.com
- PHAMA Plus Country Manager Solomon Islands Peter Ramohia on firstname.lastname@example.org
- PHAMA Plus Country Manager Vanuatu Emily Tumukon on email@example.com