Devant and the chocolate factory: How to maximise the ‘golden opportunity’
By Julien Neaves Thursday, February 6 2014
IT may have slipped under many a media radar but last month Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj announced that he wants to have an international chocolatier set up a factory locally.
This country copped the International Cocoa Award for the fourth consecutive time in France last year but the Minister noted awards were not enough, and it was time to monetise this commodity.
Maharaj reported that the ministry had “already initiated a discussion with a London-based chocolatier earlier” in December last year and he was hopeful that before the end of 2014 “we will be able to at least have or, if not, come very close to having an internationally renowned chocolate factory in Trinidad”.
Before you bust out your golden ticket, however, some stakeholders in the cocoa and chocolate industries have some concerns about the implementation project and some advice to the minister.
Isabel Brash, local chocolatier and founder of Cocobel at Fitt Street, Woodbrook, prides herself on using 100 percent local ingredients in her chocolates. Dr Jill Biden, wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden, was given a crash course on the production of local gourmet cocoa products at Cocobel last May while in this country on a State visit with her husband.
Brash told Business Day that we are famous for our cocoa because European chocolate makers “have sought after it, used it, consumed it and deemed it most desirable”. She pointed out that cocoa is a crop similar to coffee or tea, “traditionally laboured for in lesser-developed countries to the countries that manufacture and vastly consume the end products”. On the announcement of the chocolate factory her major concern was the cocoa harvesting and the cocoa farmers.
“I think that the building of a chocolate factory that will be ‘world renowned within one year’ is a great idea. However if there is no one to nurture and harvest our prized cocoa, how will you supply this dream with enough food to give it life?” she asked rhetorically.
“The pride and respect and value must be put into the hands of the farmer before the industry can even begin to be restored.”
Cocoa puzzle for you
Richard de Verteuil is a member of the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers Co-operative Society based in Gran Couva. Their San Antonio Estate is the main collection point for cocoa grown by members of and local cocoa and chocolates from the members are available for sale upon request.
On the factory de vertueil noted there are a lot of chocolatiers and expressed hope that the Food Production Ministry is in talks with “someone of quality”. He said the major issues were the lack of supply of cocoa and also labour shortages.
Questioned whether it was a case of putting the cart before the horse de Verteuil said the Government has been pushing the idea of expanding cocoa production for years but he does not believe there has been an increase in production in the last five years. He stressed this will have to be done if you are going into international chocolate manufacturing.
Dr Darin Sukha is research fellow/food technologist at Cocoa Research Centre, University of the West Indies, St Augustine. The Centre is the custodian of the International cocoa gene-bank, a collection of 2,400 unique cocoa varieties and the only one of its kind in the world. It is also the oldest cocoa research facility in the world having begun work on cocoa under the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, some 83 years ago.
Sukha praised the idea of a chocolate factory but noted there were things that needed to be put in place for its effective implementation.
He noted that this country produces less than 1000 metric tonnes of beans per year, about 600 to 800 metric tonnes, and the most important aspect of thia initiative is that it should stimulate cocoa production. He advised that it should be used as a modality to promote investment into the sector and build human capacity.
“Because there is only so much one could do with a thousand metric tonnes,” he pointed out.
In comparison the world’s largest cocoa producer, Cote d’Ivoire, produces more than a million metric tonnes annually. Sukha said this country should be trying to produce at least 3000 metric tonnes, more than three times the current output.
“So whatever is done with this facility it should tie into increasing production of beans,” he said.
De Verteuil noted currently there are a lot of private exporters and for the factory it was a question of whether they would pool their resources to supply the factory or ban the export of cocoa.
Sukha noted that this country has a current market commitment for our beans and the last thing we would want to do is cut off these buyers.
He said the traditional buyers of our cocoa would have grown accustomed to using locally originated cocoa in their recipes and noted that a chocolate manufacturer does not like to change recipes. If forced to change from a particular origin then getting them back is often very difficult, Sukha added.
“Because they would have made an investment in your origin, especially for the kinds of chocolate that are made from our beans,” he stressed.
Sukha said the exports are marketed as cocoa from Trinidad and there is an investment in terms of recipe formulation, marketing and branding which they would have done.
“The last thing we want to do is cut them off, start up our facility, leave them hanging and if our venture doesn’t work out we lose that side of the market. So...we want to have our cake and eat it too. So at the end of the day we need to increase our production to satisfy our current commitments for beans and also to facilitate this new venture. That way we will cover all our bases,” he said.
“Whatever effort the Government makes to add value to our cocoa beans they should try to capture the full extent of value chain in terms of not just beans or secondary marketing to another middleman, in terms of having the chocolate made by someone else, we should be able to reap the full extent of the value with the ultimate benefit accruing to the farmers,” he said.
He explained that the price that is paid for the cocoa beans to supply the facility should match, if not top, what an international chocolate manufacturing company would pay for our beans and reiterated that this should accrue to the farmers and the farmers’ groups that would be supply the beans. De Verteuil noted if the ministry was planning a large international scale factory he does not believe that current cocoa production can support it.
“The cocoa that the Cocoa Board exports, isn’t much to sustain a factory unless it’s a very small enterprise,” he said.
Sukha believes that a smaller factory producing niche chocolate products may be an advisable route. He said the chocolate that is made should promote the niche marketing of this country and should reflect the pedigree that had been put into the varieties that have been bred over the last 60 years. The nice marketing would promote this country’s chocolate as a high and premium quality product.
“Making chocolate is all well and good but we need to have a market for it. A ready market identified and not just the notion of a market,” he stressed. He noted that we should have a market identified for the chocolate produced from this facility and should be able to have flexible production to cater for certain things such as chocolates as gifts for embassies or for corporate events.
“So this factory (being) bigger is not necessarily better in this instance (but) what is important is to have flexibility that could work with variable capacity in terms of volume of beans. Not a huge factory that could have idle capacity,” he said.
He also noted that we would be capturing the full value chain - having beans for sale and for market, and using beans for our chocolate.
He said one of the key elements is to promote investment in the sector and increase production, “because it’s nice to talk about chocolate but without the cocoa beans you don’t have chocolate”.
The next generation
Brash stressed that if farming this country’s famous cacao (alternative spelling for cocoa) “cannot be considered as a viable alternative for an occupation to this generation and the next, the machines in such a factory will be soon put to rest”.
“Unless of course the plan is to buy cocoa cheap from other countries as well, deepening the history of exploitation in the chocolate making industry. In that case there is no bravado - that will be an effort where few benefit and will have little positive effect on our local industry,” she explained.
De Verteuil noted that, together with cocoa lands going into residential usage, the other main issue was lack of labour as getting young people interested is very difficult and the older heads are “fading away”.
“There are a lot of things against the cocoa production and don’t really encourage it,” he said.
Sukha noted the facility should bring all relevant stakeholders in the sector together to build human capacity, to promote growth not just in cocoa production but with a new generation of young farmers who would view the sector from the “chocolate end” and niche marketing potential.
“Because you know the traditional view is that you would view cocoa as something associated with manual labour, drudgery and so on. We need to use this facility to change that way we view the industry.
Once we see the benefit derived from capturing the value we would have sparked a whole new generation of young people,” he said.
He said there has been a number of initiatives over the years to boost production by the ministry and the Cocoa Board including access to capital and subsidised plants. He noted the key concern is access to willing and skilled labour.
He said there are some initiatives looking at having people working in the Unemployment Relief Programme to be trained in cocoa and this has met with “some measure of success”.
“But I think having a cadre of young labour available would really serve the industry well. What you have a vicious cycle of old farmers with land, they getting older, they have they skill but they don’t have the physical ability to really effectively farm cocoa and you need to have access to and training of workers,” he explained.
He noted that some people who wanted to import labour, though he was unsure whether this would be successful or not, and it os one of the different modalities to address the concern of access to labour and to skilled labour.
He said the factory does represent a “golden opportunity” for the industry. He noted, though, that we need to be aware limitations that have to addressed including cost of labour and standards that have to be met not only when you export cocoa beans but when you make chocolate as well.
He said there was a notion years ago that it was not possible to make good quality chocolate in the country’s that grow cocoa “but that notion has been shifted or turned around because we have a number of countries that grow cocoa that produce good quality chocolate so there is no reason why we can’t produce good chocolate here”.
He pointed out that these countries have the production to support the enterprise as well as enough to export to support both markets. He said they are attracting people into cocoa to try and capture that approach to the industry and promoting chocolate, specifically high quality dark chocolate.
He advised that one of things the initiative should try to do is to get young children interested in appreciating dark chocolate for health benefits, adding that the children of today are the consumers of tomorrow. He said they could do a targeted approach to school feeding programme starting off pilot level to create awareness and appreciation for it. He noted it could also focus on consumers and urge them to buy local.
Sukha said the facility also needs to be structured in a way that it facilitate tours for children. He gave the example of the Rituals franchise which came into Trinidad and made coffee and tea into “something exciting”. Similarly the Dominican Republic has a number of chocolate companies which produce dark chocolate from local beans and they have their own version of Rituals but for chocolate.
“So you would have the young hip crowd that would go there and would buy not just chocolate but chocolate products in terms of bon bons and so on.” he explained.
Sukha recalled last year the Centre launched a dark chocolate line called “spirit of chocolate” made to show the potential of cocoa, showcase we can make an ultra niche product, specifically dark and niche, and that it is possible to make high quality dark chocolate.
“So it’s creating a whole awareness for the next generation so (they) would not just see cocoa as something their grandfather used to have but something associated with chocolate. It’s looking at the industry from the sexy end of it.”
Caption. Sweet TT Cocoa. Dr Jill Biden (second left), wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden and her granddaughters Naomi (centre) and Maisy ( second right) get and first hand lesson about TT’s fine cocoa, from Cocobel founder and owner Isabel Brash (left), during their visit to the local chocolate company’s Woodbrook offices on May 28, 2013. Mrs Biden’s chief of staff Sheila Nix (right) also got an insight into TT cocoa as well. PHOTO BY ROGER JACOB.