It’s a long way from Rory Village on Vanuatu’s Malekula island to Margaret River in Western Australia; but ni-Vanuatu cocoa farmer Denis Nambith and Australian chocolate maker Josh Bahen now have a business connection that shrinks the distance. The connection was forged through Vanuatu’s first chocolate competition, organised by ACIAR research projects and supported by a growing network of partners.
Denis had been a cocoa farmer for some years and was chairman of the Rory Village growers’ association when he heard about the chocolate competition. “I think it was a good test for me, because I have worked on cocoa but never tasted chocolate from Vanuatu”, Denis explained. “This is the first time I have grown the cocoa and fermented it and dried it and now I get to taste the chocolate from my own cocoa”.
In the past, farmers in Vanuatu and other Pacific islands have typically sold their cocoa beans to traders, who then sold on the beans to bulk markets in Asia at whatever price was on offer. The buyers would dock the buying price if there were too many small or shrunken beans, or if the beans were wet and mouldy – but otherwise provided little feedback on quality.
That all changed with an ACIAR agribusiness activity, led by Prof. Randy Stringer of University of Adelaide, that put the growers in direct contact with Australian chocolate makers Bahen and Co. Josh Bahen recalls that when they first came to Vanuatu in search of new ‘single-origin’ beans the quality was very disappointing: “There were all kinds of off-tastes from inadequate fermentation, smoke from unsuitable driers and mould from poor storage.” Josh took away samples from different communities, made them separately into chocolate and, crucially, brought the samples back to explain to the growers what was good and bad about their cocoa and how they could improve it.
Two years of hard work with another ACIAR project team (this time led by SPC, the Pacific Community) then followed. The project focused on improving basic production and processing techniques, from pruning and disease control, through regular harvest of pods, to intense fermentation and gentle sun-drying – cherishing the beans along every step of the way.
The competition provided the opportunity to evaluate progress. Cocoa samples from ten communities were brought to Port Vila for processing into chocolate by Sandrine Wallez, head chocolate-maker from local NGO ACTIV (who had herself received training at Australian chocolate maker Haigh’s of Adelaide). The chocolate samples were then subjected to a rigorous blind-tasting evaluation by an international panel of judges, including father-and-son team, Mark and Josh Bahen, and Ben Kolly from Haigh’s. Josh Bahen declared himself deeply impressed by the progress the growers had made.
This particular chapter of the story ended with Denis as the proud winner of the Vanuatu competition. However, as tends to be the case with ACIAR initiatives, the story has deep rootsand it continues to bear fruit in all sorts of different ways.
The origin of this work was a scoping study commissioned by ACIAR in 2005/2006. In that study, Fiji-based economist and entrepreneur Andrew McGregor teamed up with cocoa sustainability specialist Smilja Lambert from Mars Inc. (a partner in ACIAR cocoa projects in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) and New Guinean cocoa evangelist John Konam from SPC. Their work, which has subsequently guided ACIAR’s cocoa research strategy in the region for over a decade, reviewed the state of the very different cocoa industries in Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – and sketched out a different trajectory for each.
Since then, ACTIV has gone on to develop local manufacture of fine chocolate in Port Vila, with ‘single-origin’ lines from four different islands. Benefitting from links established by ACIAR’s Pacific Agribusinesss Research-for-Development Inititiative (PARDI), at least five Australian high-end chocolate-makers are now sourcing beans from Pacific island producers, offering them a very much better price than the Asian bulk market. And an ACIAR project funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Bougainville Autonomous Region of PNG, has so far organised two successful chocolate competitions, establishing further mutually beneficial links to Australian chocolate-makers. Meanwhile, at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, cocoa samples from producers in Fiji, Solomon Islands, PNG and Australia have competed with the best in the world and won ‘Cocoa of Excellence’ awards. At ACIAR, we feel that our researchers and network of partners are at the centre of a veritable renaissance in Pacific island cocoa and chocolate.