400 million tonnes of cocoa is produced each year. 70% of that comes out of West Africa, and less than 2% is produced by the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. This experience represents just a tiny fraction of the world of cocoa but it is a truly important part of chocolate making and consumption.
To begin, plants are cloned in an effort to nurture excellent genetics rumoured to make the best chocolate in the world. This is done by germinating the beans and growing little trees that are grafted onto bigger, thriving cocoa trees with good yields. Some trees are trellised to get a better yield and to make the lives of the farmers easier when harvesting. There really is an art to good cocoa. What keeps the workers going day after day in hot, challenging conditions is that they truly believe cocoa is in their blood.
I was so excited to see and touch my first cocoa pod and it was incredible. The colour was luscious and eating fresh cocoa blew my mind. Sucking on the flesh from around the beans tasted like mashed banana that has been marinated in lemon juice and raspberries. An entirely contrasting flavour and texture to chocolate. The bean on the inside is intensely bitter — a long way off the chocolate we eat back home.
These cocoa pods are harvested typically by women and opened under the cocoa trees with a machete or a stick. The wet beans are put into sacks and if they aren’t done with the harvest, they hide the bags under leaves to ensure they aren’t stolen in the night. The sacks are taken to a fermentary where the mucus disintegrates inside wooden crates covered with banana leaves. It smells like vinegar and unusually pleasant.
After 5–10 days of fermenting, the beans are dried and bagged up again to be taken to the broker who is connected to the market. They weigh the beans, check the moisture level, taste, and colour. The farmer is paid for their beans usually with a cheque and they cash it in at the bank.
The bulk market dominates the industry; Nestle, Mondelez, Hershey’s, and cosmetics brands that use cocoa butter. They also love a bit of Oil Palm.
There were moments that looked like a World Vision ad. But truthfully, the children were so happy and free to do as they pleased.
There’s a large network of stakeholders working in the cocoa industry to help get cocoa to market. They are Australian Aid, Strongim Business, CEMA, ADRA, and PHARMA. We met these teams at the SolChoc Festival. It is an amazing initiative bringing everyone together to educate farmers and help them be more successful. Sessions were held at the museum in Honiara and focused on things like genetics, value-add, and quality. The event included a cocoa competition where craft-chocolate-making judges turned the cocoa into chocolate and awarded the cocoa farmers with distinctive flavours.
I received so much warmth and kindness I have never experienced anywhere else in the world. At one farm in the Markham Valley a group of women and children were bring some bananas back to their cooking house and passed us on our way to check out some cacao trees. We exchanged a smile and a wave.
Just as I was getting into the truck the woman knocked on the window. The young girl gave us a whole bunch of bananas and the mother placed a handmade billim bag around my neck and gave me a huge hug nearly pulling me from the truck. They had no guarantee of business from us, and needed nothing in return. They were generous and kind and their joy was infectious.
How farmers get the cocoa from A to B with such trying road conditions and battling the elements is beyond me. Bridges were washed out by flooded rivers, ships were rusting away, and small banana boats battled the swell. We flew to Lae in Papua New Guinea and then drove to Madang through the Markham Valley. It took all day but I didn’t really notice the time as there was so much to absorb. People set up little stalls on the side of the road to sell coconut, noodles, phone top ups, anything really. I didn’t manage to get many photos on the road as it was so bumpy everything came up so blurry.
It was a surreal experience arriving at Kar Kar Island. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur popped up. The coconut trees towered above the cocoa plantations, hundreds of years old. Dried coconut called copra is one of the main exports from the Island, as well as tonnes of cocoa. This is a special place where kids roam freely and are raised by the community, laying down to rest anywhere they want.
Typically, cocoa is harvested twice a year. But for the first time ever, cocoa is being harvested all year round, which is really strange. There was no outburst about climate change, just an easy-going attitude that life in the Pacific demands; it is what it is. I was saddened to think how much might be lost if the sea level were to rise, or the volcano errupted, but the people on the Island are so resilient, I think they will take it in their stride.
We stopped at a coconut processing hut nearby a cocoa fermentary on our outing in Madang. Every chunk of coconut was chipped out by hand and there was a mountain of shells stacked up reaching the roof. The workers were smiling, and just kept going.
Seeing a vanilla vine was really special. The farmers hand pollinate the flowers that grow a bunch of pods that look like beans. They are then boiled and dried before being graded by the broker and taken to market. People are really proud of their vanilla and the price point of $450 USD/kg explains why.
If there really was a ‘goodness scale’ of sustainability, I think the wellbeing of the people involved at the beginning of the value chain should be the number one priority. But sometimes the private sector needs to forget the pyramids, venn-diagrams, and the pillars, and just connect with humans. I am so grateful to have searched for the source of cacao and found happy faces.
Thanks to OCHO for giving me the opportunity to go on this adventure. It was scary, thrilling, and rewarding all at once. To have studied value-chains, sustainability, ethics and business modelling in a classroom, and then step foot in the third world and see where it all starts was enlightening. Even better than that was knowing our little chocolate company in Dunedin was playing its part in stimulating traditional enterprise in the local Pacific economy.
To all the people who hosted us or joined us along the way — Hannah from PHARMA, David from ADRA, Cas from Australian Aid, Brian from Makira, Charles from Atypic, Trevor from Metiisto, Chris from Bean Bar You, Juan from WCF, Ron from Elliven — you are amazing. Thank you for time and energy in helping me learn about your experience in the cocoa and chocolate industries.
Most of all, thanks to the farmers — Agnes Pillopaso, Robert Waisu and David Kebu from the Solomons, and from PNG the people of Madang Valley, the Niduk Tribe, Barbara, Paul, and the team at Kul Kul on Kar Kar Island. You all produce beautiful world-class cocoa and it was a real privilege to visit your plantations and fermentaries.
Anna is a Master of Entrepreneurship graduate and has a keen interest in sustainable value chains. Connect with her at linkedin.com/in/annacampbellnz