Cocoa farming was introduced to Fiji in 1960 as part of the then Government's efforts to encourage smallholder farmers to broaden and diversify crop production. Since then, the cocoa industry in Fiji has fluctuated due to numerous factors, including limited local market opportunities.
In the early 2000s, the Ministry of Agriculture put forward a cocoa revitalisation program, and today Fiji's cocoa industry looks brighter than ever.
A 4 year ACIAR-funded project aims to strengthen cocoa value-chains across Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Australia and is led by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) in partnership with the Pacific Community (SPC) and the University of Adelaide.
Project leader and QDAF Principal Horticulturist Dr Yan Diczbalis said that the project works closely with agricultural ministries, cocoa farmers, and market holders to adopt a 'whole of chain' approach to the cocoa export industry and to support the understanding of cocoa genetics and what it may mean for cocoa quality and yield.
'The project works with everyone involved in the cocoa industry, from the farmers to the market, to increase agronomic productivity, development, and uptake of improved post-harvest systems, such as fermentation and drying, to optimise cocoa quality before it reaches the market,’ he said.
'Understanding cocoa genetics will go a long way to improve the quality, production, and marketing of Pacific cocoa. The growing craft chocolate market is also interested in the origin and genetic "story", which puts Fiji at an advantage because of its unique mix of cocoa genetic families - a result of the different waves of its introduction in the region.’
'Fiji's cocoa genetic diversity is essential to developing new and improved varieties to achieve higher yields. Combining this with well-managed post-harvest practices, we can also greatly improve the quality of the cacao beans,’ Dr Diczbalis added.
Iwoane's Love of Cocoa
Cocoa farmer Iowane Kalouwia is a part-time employee at Cacao Fiji Ltd. He says he cannot imagine a career change from cocoa farming. Cacao Fiji is one of the 7 cocoa buyers in Fiji and buys cocoa beans from Mr Kalouwia.
'Companies like Cacao Fiji are crucial to the cocoa industry. They are involved in the farming, processing, and exporting of cocoa beans for craft chocolate, and they connect Fiji to the global market and promote our Fiji-made brand through their -Vanua Chocolate,’ he added.
'I started cocoa farming when I was 17 on my family farm, but with Cacao Fiji, I get to see the other side of the coin and see what happens to the cocoa beans that farmers supply.'
Mr Kalouwia's role at Cacao Fiji consists of looking after the cacao seedlings and overseeing the cocoa processing from harvesting to fermentation, quality control, and transportation to the Vanua Chocolate factory.
Dr Diczbalis explained that there are four main families of cacao. Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario, and Nacional Forastero, each with their own distinct flavour.
'Most farmers now can choose the qualities they want in their trees through grafting. Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao. Grafting skills allow farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees.’
Dr Diczbalis explained that the training is critical to helping farmers graft cocoa in a way that will increase production, improve the quality of the cocoa, and be more competitive.
For farmers like Mr Kalouwia, the project's training has helped him produce better quality and more profitable cacao.
Mr Kalouwia said there are many challenges with cocoa farming, such as pests and diseases, natural disasters, and trees needing to be consistently pruned and well-shaded, but the result is worth it.
'My advice to young farmers is cocoa is green gold in your farm. I have been a cocoa farmer for over 30 years. I have seen firsthand that cocoa farming, when done well, can earn more than working in a shop.'
'I have seen the science change. There are faster-growing trees, better pods with higher cocoa content, the introduction to genetics, the faster drying process including solar drying (instead of using firewood) and I am excited for the future to see Fiji's cocoa dominating the Pacific chocolate market,’ he said.
Mr Kalouwia added that he and other cocoa farmers who participated in the project were grateful for the support from project partners.
'The cocoa farming community in Fiji is very grateful to the project partners, including SPC and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry of Agriculture and SPC are always just a phone call away. Even during the pandemic, they connected with us through video calls and would check in if we were facing any problems and assist us in grafting and cloning,’ he added.
From the Farm to the Chocolate Factory
Once the cocoa beans are fermented, they are packed and sent to Vanua Chocolate Factory- a bean-to-bar craft chocolate company and subsidiary of Cacao Fiji.
Micky Koroi, the chocolate maker at Vanua Chocolate, explained the process of turning the beans into the delicious dark chocolate that Vanua Chocolate is renowned for.
'Chocolate is a product that requires complex procedures to produce. Once the dried beans come from the cocoa farms, they undergo a quality check for cleanliness and dryness of beans. This is a very important process in chocolate making.’
'Then the beans are roasted, ground, and vacuumed to remove the beans from the shells. Once the nibs are ground (the nibs contain cocoa solids and butter), the process of conching begins, which includes adding chocolate liquor and other ingredients that give the chocolate its distinctive flavour,’ he added.
Vanua Chocolate is well known in the region for its unique flavours, such as sea salt and ginger, which give it a distinct taste.
'It's great to see beans from local farmers turned into delicious, exotic Fiji-made chocolate. It is an industry secret that the beans are the hero in the chocolate industry; the higher the cocoa content in the bean, the higher the chocolate quality.'
'Vanua Chocolate and Fiji Cocoa have the potential to rule the regional markets, and we need to encourage the farmers to continue to invest in this as the market and demand is present,’ he added.
The future of the Fijian cocoa industry
ACIAR Research Program Manager for Horticulture, Ms Irene Kernot, said that the priorities of ACIAR-funded projects in the Pacific include reducing poverty, improving livelihoods in agriculture, and supporting more robust agribusiness development.
This project aims to promote the adoption of a 'whole of chain' approach to the cocoa export industry, leading- to increased agronomic productivity and development and uptake of best practice in fermentation and drying to optimise cocoa quality.
Ms Irene Kernot
ACIAR Research Program Manager for Horticulture
'Supporting niche boutique and bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturers and linking them with producers and producer groups committed to producing quality cocoa beans will enhance market outcomes. Partnerships between farmers such as Mr Kalouwia and Cacoa Fiji are a prime example of that support,' she added.
The future for the project includes continued support to cocoa farmers.
Dr Diczbalis added that capacity building remains a crucial component of building confidence in the Fijian cocoa industry. The Ministry of Agriculture has supported farmers in the region with various training and there is a continuous need for refresher training in grafting, pruning, farm management, and post-harvest management.
The project is also working on a training manual on grafting and cocoa care to ensure that the knowledge gained by farmers is sustainable and can be carried over to the new generation of cocoa farmers.
Aligning genetic resources, production, and post-harvest systems to market opportunities for Pacific island and Australian cocoa is an ACIAR-funded project led by the University of Adelaide in partnership with the SPC and the QDAF.