Date released
23 February 2023

The inaugural South Pacific Cocoa of Excellence Awards in 2022 was a small affair, a COVID-19 pivot that allowed the region’s smallholder cocoa producers to test their mettle, and the quality of their beans, against the same stringent international criteria used for the biennial international Cocoa of Excellence Awards in Paris.

Producers from the Pacific region have previously picked up gold, silver and bronze at the Cocoa of Excellence Awards, including growers from Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji. But when travel restrictions brought further entries to a halt, it provided the genesis for a purely local affair, says cocoa research, Professor Randy Stringer, from the University of Adelaide.

Professor Stringer has been working on cocoa research in the Pacific region for more than a decade, including a project in the ACIAR-supported Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative that dates back to 2010.

‘In that project, we identified how to help smallholders increase production. Working on farm practices – pruning, weed removal, disease control – they were able to increase their yields threefold. But they were still selling into a bulk commodity market; the increased yield wasn’t resulting in any significant increase in income.’

Professor Stringer said as part of that project, smallholder growers, some of them fifth generation, were introduced to ‘real’ chocolate for the first time. Not the highly sweetened chocolate confectionary bars they were familiar with, but high-end fine dark chocolate that represents the pinnacle in quality and price.

This has become the new goal for farmers to aim for. And helping them to tap into this market is the focus of the latest ACIAR-supported value-chain project working with smallholders in Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Australia.

The South Pacific Cocoa of Excellence Awards is part of this 5-year project, which wraps up in March 2023. Professor Stringer says it put the 15 participants in front of international judges and chocolate makers in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the Netherlands.

The chocolates produced for the competition are made according to the Cocoa of Excellence recipe and highlight the nuances that unique weather, soil and local production methods can contribute to the resulting chocolate flavour and aroma.

Mr Yan Diczbalis, from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, leads the value-chain project and said single-source ‘fine’ chocolate and trending bean-to-bar chocolate outlets represent the fastest-growing segment of the chocolate industry.

Although ‘single-source’ can be a country of origin, it can also come down to a growing region, or even a village or growers’ cooperative, rather than a specific variety of cocoa bean, explained Mr Diczbalis.

In this fine chocolate market, the origins of the cocoa, the grower’s production techniques and the genetics of the cocoa crop are all part of the story and the final value of the product.

As part of the value-chain project, Mr Diczbalis and his team have mapped the genetic make-up of cocoa crops across Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Mr Diczbalis said the existing genetics, for the most part, are the legacy of the region’s colonial history; the cocoa tree itself, Theobroma cacao, is native to South America.

The project’s genetic mapping has helped to identify selections in the Pacific region, highlighting those that produce superior beans suited to premium chocolate making. Of particular note is the high level of Trinitario and Criollo genetics found in Samoa, which are noted as ‘fine-flavoured’ varieties. The beans are less astringent, less bitter, and are ideal for dark chocolate.

The value-chain project has also provided smallholders with training in simple propagation techniques to help them reproduce their best varieties and best-performing trees, targeting superior genetics for a higher value end use.

‘Clonal reproduction using grafting is a relatively simple and low-cost technique that smallholders can master with readily available tools – a sharp knife and some tape,’ said Mr Diczbalis, who helped coordinate a series of grafting workshops. The technique also accelerates new production, with trees beginning to yield in half the time – 18 months, compared to 4 years for trees produced from seed.

Better ways to ferment

To improve processing, the research team also helped develop fermenting and drying techniques suited to smallholders. Poor processing, rather than the quality of the beans themselves, was identified as one of the key factors reducing the quality of the beans for sale.

The standard box fermentation technique is also a legacy of large colonial plantations, processing large quantities of beans, a tonne or more at a time.

But it is not well-suited for fermenting small quantities of beans and many smallholders are only processing a few hundred kilograms. Researchers have successfully trialled a tray-based system, working with smallholders in Vanuatu and Samoa. The trays are 10 cm deep and can be stacked on top of each other. A series of trays could effectively stack up to the same volume as a box – traditionally a 1 m cube.

‘But each tray is individual and can be sized according to the amount of wet bean you may expect to process,’ explained Mr Diczbalis. ‘So, it just gives smallholder growers a lot more flexibility in creating a good product.’

men crouching and holding cocoa pods
Cocoa farmers in Vanuatu discussing farming practices. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

Impact and income

The NGO Alternative Communities Trade in Vanuatu (ACTIV) is a partner in the cocoa value-chain project, and ACTIV founder and manager Ms Sandrine Wallez said it has helped smallholders increase their incomes.

‘This project and the long partnership with ACIAR, since 2010, has been really valuable in making an impact and improving the quality of cocoa in Vanuatu. And there is international price recognition for premium cocoa; growers are earning 3 times the standard price. When I look at where we started from, there’s a huge difference,’ said Ms Wallez.

ACTIV has established its own chocolate factory, producing chocolate for 5 different islands on the archipelago. Collectively ACTIV fine dark chocolate has won 27 international awards, with 2 growers named in the top 50 in the Cocoa of Excellence Awards in 2017.

Ms Wallez said the awards recognised that growers were doing a good job at a farm level, growing cocoa, but also instilled a sense of pride in growers that their cocoa is high quality.

‘With this project we could put Vanuatu on the map of fine flavour cocoa, which it was not before,’ said Ms Wallez. It has also helped to put fine cocoa on the Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture’s priority list for development.

ACTIV is developing a ‘share-factory’ project to help smallholders produce their own premium chocolate, with producer organisations interested in a partnership to support the industry.

blocks of chocolate
International competitions allow the Pacific region’s smallholder cocoa farmers to put their single origin products on the world stage for premium chocolate. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

More beans needed

The reputation of Fijian cocoa is likewise spreading globally and winning international awards, including a top 50 listing for the beans from Cacao Fiji at the Cocoa of Excellence awards in Paris. Cacao Fiji, founded by Mr Arif Khan, also claimed the silver award in the South Pacific Cocoa of Excellence Awards last year.

‘These awards are a great platform for farmers to get their cocoa into a world showcase. It increases the awareness and marketability of their product,’ said Mr Khan. ‘They receive a lot of interest and their cocoa crop is pretty much pre-sold.’

In fact, demand is outstripping supply in Fiji, where Mr Khan is a grower, buyer and exporter of beans. He is excited about the potential of clonal reproduction techniques shared through the ACIAR-funded project to help rebuild the cocoa industry in Fiji, using targeted genetics.

‘For my business, we are working with smallholders to share this cloning knowledge, to help revive traditional cocoa farms and improve supply and bean quality,’ said Mr Khan.

Combined with the post-harvest and marketing initiatives, he says the value-chain project provides valuable information to help revive cocoa in Fiji, and in the Pacific region more broadly, generating much-needed jobs and income in rural areas.

ACIAR PROJECTS: ‘Aligning genetic resources, production and post-harvest systems to market opportunities for Pacific island and Australian cocoa’ (HORT/2014/078); ‘Facilitating improved livelihoods for Pacific cocoa producer networks through premium market access’ (PARDI/2011/001)