Vanuatu cocoa offers “new flavour” for craft chocolate industry

On Malo Island in Vanuatu, Moli Lui observed in silence as the formalities of greetings and introductions took place to welcome a trade delegation of international cocoa buyers.

When the theologian was finally invited to address the visitors, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm with which he spoke about his newfound interest in cocoa farming.

In the minutes that followed, Lui had impressed the buyers enough who, after sampling some of his dried cocoa beans, asked to purchase the sack of beans and have its contents divided among them.

The trip to the island was part of a trade visit organised by the Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access (PHAMA) Program which is funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments.

The visit aimed to establish trade relations between international cocoa buyers and local farmers, producers and exporters as well as government stakeholders in Vanuatu’s cocoa industry.

Moli Lui, right, talks to the trade visitors about his drying methods during a tour of his cocoa farm on Malo Island in Vanuatu.

 The trade delegation comprised chocolate makers Greg D’Alesandre of Dandelion Chocolate in the United States of America, Karl Hogarth of Hogarth Chocolates in New Zealand, Peter Channells and Li Peng Monroe of Jasper + Myrtle Chocolates in Australia and cocoa buyer Mathieu Bours from Le Cercle du Cacao in Belgium.

For Lui, it was the first time a trade delegation had visited him to see the condition of his cocoa farm and gather finer details of the harvesting and post-harvesting processes of fermenting and drying cocoa beans.

Interestingly, while Lui has had his cocoa farm for at least 20 years, it was only six months ago that he developed a serious interest in it and has been able to produce 328 kilograms of cocoa beans which he sold to Vanuatu Copra and Cocoa Exporters Limited.

“In March last year the VARTC (Vanuatu Agricultural Research and Technical Centre) organised a training in partnership with World Vision International and that training changed my life. As an emerging farmer, I am interested in cocoa as a crop. I have four children and with the eldest in high school, this is my family’s livelihood and our source of income.”

Lui said he was keen to have more visitors to his farm and is determined to produce better quality cocoa. He has already planted 150 new trees in addition to the 295 trees on his farm and he has now become a focal point of training and awareness for other emerging farmers in his village.

The visit to Lui’s farm has been one of several highlights of the trade visit. Throughout the week, the trade team visited representatives from several key cocoa industry stakeholders including the Department of Agriculture, Food Technology Lab, South Seas Shipping, ADRA, ACTIV and Metenesel Estate which houses the largest cocoa farm on Malekula Island.

PHAMA’s National Co-ordinator in Vanuatu, Rebecca Bogiri, said the program’s work in the cocoa industry in Vanuatu was unique in its approach to address quality issues.

“In a span of two years, the PHAMA program has trialled solar driers to improve capacity to produce sun-dried beans. It has also funded training for lab officers to improve their capacity to test the quality of cocoa samples for exports,” she said.

She said the trade visit would also give way to other export opportunities and better prices for quality sun-dried beans.

For Karl Hogarth, coming to Vanuatu has been an eye-opening experience. It was his first visit to a cocoa farm which also allowed him his first taste of wet or unprocessed cocoa beans.

“Seeing the way cocoa is grown, harvested, traded and delivered – the whole chain is a unique experience,” he said.

Hogarth said visiting the farmers was the highlight of the visit.

“Getting a relationship with the farmer is the most important thing. I sell my chocolates with a story … so I need to know the story of where the cocoa came from so I can tell that story which will engage my customer so they can buy the chocolate. The closer I can get to the people producing the cocoa, the better,” he said.

He is also keen to support farmers in producing good quality cocoa.

“What we can do as cocoa buyers is to help the farmers when we start a relationship with them. We need to have consistent supply and it might not always be easy for them to do that. Without just giving them lots of money for their cocoa, how can we help to improve their processing? I can see the PHAMA Program will allow us access to do that: to stay connected to the farmers or village, help them with tools and equipment,” he said.

Channells and Monroe said they were grateful for the opportunity to learn about the difficulties of growing and producing cocoa in Vanuatu.

“We can see the challenges in drying and the other challenge is the logistics. We have a lot of appreciation for the training and understand that it can help farmers like Moli Lui improve quality. We thought the beans were good, some were not as dried as they should be so we’re also giving the farmer advice on how to dry it a bit more. The biggest issue is getting the cocoa beans to us; at what cost and what’s viable,” said Channells.

“Because we’re small, we do not buy more than 3 tonnes in a row and the farmers here probably don’t produce more than 500kg each time and that suits us fine. I can see a lot of potential here in the sense that there’s a lot of good ingredients. There’s really good ginger and vanilla, all those things that we can add to the chocolate,” said Monroe.

D’Alesandre said the trade visit presented many opportunities.

“It’s exciting because it seems like there’s a great opportunity to get really high quality cocoa in Vanuatu and pay premium prices. That could help with the Vanuatu market but also bring in new flavour to the craft chocolate industry,” he said.

While the logistics of transporting cocoa from a Pacific Island country to the USA is a concern, D’Alesandre said logistics were a major issue everywhere. “I don’t worry about it too much because it’s always going to be expensive. It’s never cheap to get cocoa,” he said.

Bours said the trade visit was an opportunity to meet as many people as possible in the Vanuatu cocoa industry.

“It gave us some good ideas of what the possibilities are and where to source from. Also, we met several exporters, consolidators and freight companies and it was an opportunity to meet people and make our own decisions,” he said.

Aisen Samuel, centre, and Basile Malily, right, of the Cocoa Growers Association share their experience with the trade visitors during a tour of Metenesel Estate on Malekula Island.

The trade team also visited Metenesel Estate in Malekula which houses cocoa farms spanning across 500 hectares of land.

The estate manager, Aisen Samuel, welcomed the trade visit to the farm he has been working on for over 30 years.

“We’re quite isolated and in a rural area so we usually don’t have the chance to meet people from the outside or the market. This visit is an opportunity to learn new techniques that can assist us to improve the quality of our cocoa,” he said.

The estate produces an average of 200 tonnes of cocoa beans per year and employs 12 permanent employees and 281 contract labourers who are given cocoa tree plots to work on and look after at their own cost. The labourers then sell the beans they harvest to the estate at VUV45 per kilo.

Cocoa is one of Vanuatu’s main exports, with more than 1,500 tonnes exported annually. 25% of rural households in Vanuatu are involved in cocoa production which makes it an important cash crop.

Cocoa Growers Association (CGA) director Basile Malily said the trade visit was an opportunity to further promote Vanuatu cocoa to the world. CGA works with member smallholders and processors as well as non-member smallholders in the supply chain. Its focus is on maintaining its export status while exploring new opportunities to improve cocoa driers, fermentation systems and cocoa genetics.

“The ball is now in our court and we intend to teach our people to produce quality cocoa so we can have more premium buyers visiting us. We’d like to get better prices for our cocoa and that’s why we’re making every effort to improve our processes of producing cocoa so we can secure better markets.”

The trade team visited Vanuatu from April 18-21 and later travelled to the Solomon Islands.

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