On Thursday, Dateline Pacific reported that the ‘Wellington Chocolate Voyage’ had begun. Crew members of Fiji's Uto ni Yalo sailed their twin-hull canoe out of Suva, headed for Bougainville. There, the crew will pick up a one-tonne shipment of cocoa beans from local farmers, then deliver the beans to Wellington, New Zealand - specifically, the Wellington Chocolate Factory.
Producers of artisan chocolate, Wellington Chocolate Factory was the first New Zealand chocolate maker to sign up for the Fairtrade Sourcing Programme for cocoa, which connects farmers with businesses that want to buy their cocoa fairly and sustainably. Last year, these chocolate makers - Gabe Davidson & Rochelle Harrison - and international development worker Sera Price launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the ‘Wellington Chocolate Voyage’ project. Funds raised for the project were to be used to:
- Upgrade a Bougainvillean cocoa plantation, by improving their production facilities and growing a high-quality crop of unique varietal cocoa;
- Buy one tonne of the resulting beans at a fair, premium price, for The Wellington Chocolate Factory to use.
- Ship the beans via the Fijijan vessel Uto ni Yalo, “in the tradition of legendary ocean voyages and historical trade routes”, from Bougainville to Wellington harbour.
- Use the beans to produce the ‘Bougainville Bar’, “a highest quality artisan treat with a unique flavour”.
The Kickstarter campaign was indeed successful, and the voyage is expected to take two months, with Uto ni Yalo to be sailed from Fiji down to Vanuatu, onwards to Bougainville, and then Wellington (and at least three other locations along the New Zealand coast line, as reported by Solomon Star News).
This mouth watering news story got us thinking - could nations of the Pacific one day be the most popular producers of cocoa and purveyors of fine chocolate products?
COCOA FARMERS IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Currently, almost all of Papua New Guinea’s cocoa beans are shipped overseas. Oxford Business Group reported in April that the PNG Government is attempting to strengthen the cocoa industry in the country, to help local growers recover after a difficult 7 years. Last December Radio Australia covered how Papua New Guinea’s cocoa industry was back from the brink, with assistance from Australian agri-scientists helping to counter a cocoa pod borer infestation.
Australia Plus’ ‘Food Bowl’ series produced this wonderful story on how cocoa farmer Odelia Virua Taman, secretary of the Tavilo Farmers Cooperative in East New Britain, endured the poverty the infestation wrought. And how community commitment to managing the infestation resulted in a resurgence of their cocoa - now thriving and known for its quality.
Many cocoa producers are still feeling the impact of that cocoa pod borer infestatio though, which decimated crops from 2008 to 2013. Nevertheless, as international demand rises, OBG reports, “the government is eagre to carve out a niche for PNG as a centre for chocolate manufacturing, in line with its broader aim of boosting value-added industry.” Other governments in the region are also examining the feasibility of producing chocolate in Pacific countries.
In March, PNG Today reported that The PNG Government had offered to partner with ‘Belgian Famous Chocolates’, to undertake a comprehensive feasibility study regarding the establishment of a chocolate factory in Wewak, East Sepik Province. The goal is to produce high premium chocolate and value added products, from organically grown cocoa, for both the PNG and global markets.
DEALING WITH SET-BACKS: COCOA IN VANUATU
Meanwhile, in Vanuatu, during Cyclone Pam, an enormous number of crops were destroyed. Aid worker and chocolate maker Sandrine Wallez, of local NGO ACTIV, told Radio Australia that farmers faced an uncertain future. Prior to the cylcone, real hopes were held for good returns for cocoa crops specifically grown for chocolate, according to Professor Randy Stringer, of Adelaide University, leader of the Pacific Cocoa Producers project.
However, in an interview with Radio Australia in March, chocolate maker Josh Bahen said his partnership with Vanuatu cocoa farmers - a partnership that was proving to be promising - would still continue, despite more than 80% of the plantations they work with being flattened. His company, Co Chocolate, began working with Vanuato cocoa growers through AusAid and ACTIV.
Co Chocolate had run programs with the farmers on Santo, Malekula and Epi Islands for years to raise the quality of their cocoa bean so that it could be used in premium chocolate - with the farmers working on developing their own chocolate product. A rich dark chocolate from Vanuatu, called Aelan Single Origin, had been launched weeks before the cyclone, with the aim of fetching a better income for local producers.
THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET FOR PACIFIC COCOA BEANS
But there is definitely a market for the bean. Chris Jahnke, one of the owners of Charley's Chocolate Factory in Mission Beach, Queensland, sells premium chocolate bars using beans grown in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon islands and Papua New Guinea. He told the ABC’s Bruce Hill last September that the flavour of chocolates vary depending on where the source beans were grown - a fact fascinating to the consumers who take tours of his factory, and have the opportunity to taste test the products.
Compared to where most of the world’s chocolate is made - West Africa - the Pacific has a reputation for being a healthy place without the severe labor rights abuses associated with other regions of the globe. Jahnke said that his business pays way above the world commodity price for premium raw product from the Pacific, to turn into cocoa in Australia - ensuring that producers he partners with get a fair return for their crops and hard work.
Even so, Jahnke said he was talking to suppliers about the possibility of making the cocoa and chocolate locally - and linking that with the tourism economy of Pacific nations. A number of factors would have to be overcome in order to make that a reality - but Jahnke suggested it was not impossible.
A NEW FRONTIER: CHOCOLATE MAKING TRADE IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
And Melanesian chocolatiers may not be far away! Radio New Zealand reported on Monday that a group of cocoa farmers are learning to become Solomon Islands' first chocolate makers - through a training programme being conducted by Nat Bletter and David Elliot, the co-founders of the award winning Madre chocolate in Hawaii.
Rather than simply export local beans to bigger countries, trained Solomon Islanders will be empowered to make their own chocolate. As Bletter said:
"They can process it into cacao through popsicles which are made or chocolate drinks to replace their Milo or the chocolate bananas, even better for them. And many of them said 'Yeah, I'm not going to drink Milo in the morning anymore. I'm just going to drink my own chocolate."
The training programme will hopefully open a new market for locally made chocolate products!
WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.
Image 1 - Wellington Chocolate Factory.
Image 2 - Photo by Medicaster.
Image 3 - Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jnr holding the finished product, dried cocoa beans ready for export. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID.
Image 4 - Cocoa farmer Flora Kebu explains her farming process at Kebu farm. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID.
Image 5 - Cracking a fresh cocoa bean. Photo taken by Irene Scott for AusAID.
Image 6 - Poster for the Wellington Chocolate Voyage Kickstarter funding campaign.