Sweet Tales of Melanesia

A quiet revolution is underway in Melanesia where chocolate makers and cocoa exporters have started producing high quality Pacific cocoa beans and products for export to the world’s top markets.    

Slowly but surely in small, sweet, often painstaking steps, a quiet revolution has been taking place on the shores of Melanesia.

Despite a pandemic and the day-to-day challenges of adding value to Pacific export commodities, chocolate makers and cocoa exporters in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have been quietly leading the charge, taking high quality Pacific cocoa beans and products to the world’s top markets.

This extraordinary achievement is in part the result of the success, as well as some of the hard lessons, learnt over the past decade from the innovative work funded by the Australian and New Zealand Governments, including through their joint program to promote Pacific export capabilities,  Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus or PHAMA Plus.

PHAMA Plus works with the private and public sectors, supporting export businesses and sometimes whole industries to identify and develop innovative ways to create opportunities for access to new international markets for the region’s agricultural products.

Pacific cocoa was invariably sold into the world bulk commodity market at low prices, making it one of the region’s top agricultural export commodities by volume. But at the other end of the supply chain, the commodity was generating only a meagre return for most smallholder cocoa farming households.

The large, often foreign-owned, bulk exporters had no real incentive to do the painstakingly detailed work required to encourage and support local farmers to change their cultivation and post-harvest processes to lift the quality of the region’s usually low grade, smoke-tainted beans to achieve a better price.

In PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, PHAMA Plus worked with three local chocolate makers and cocoa exporters, supporting them to expand their access to export markets by improving both the quality of their products as well as linkages to premium markets.

By working through these local partners, who were already buying locally grown beans, PHAMA Plus has been able to support the introduction of farming and harvesting practices and equipment such as solar driers that have significantly improved the quality and price of the dried beans being supplied, which in turn has improved and streamlined incomes of smallholders.

Chocolate made from PNG’s finest cocoa

In PNG, Queen Emma Chocolate, owned by local food leader Paradise Foods Limited, began experimenting with processing high quality PNG cocoa into chocolate several years ago for the domestic market.

High demand led Paradise Foods to open a dedicated chocolate factory in 2016 which now employs 50 people, many of them women and includes some workers who are living with disabilities.

Since then, PHAMA Plus has worked with Queen Emma Chocolate to improve cocoa quality and productivity, increasing access to new markets and improving returns for smallholder cocoa farming households.

This includes activities such as participation at international events and installing mini chocolate processing equipment to improve the quality of cocoa beans and products.

 According to Queen Emma’s General Manager, Karina Makoi, the flexibility and responsiveness of PHAMA Plus’ support, especially in the crucial early years has made all the difference.

“Queen Emma Chocolate Company takes pride in being a factory that is PNG-owned, and processes PNG-grown cocoa. Our collaboration with PHAMA Plus has created a faster system for testing cocoa beans, making it easier to provide timely and accurate feedback to smallholder suppliers, while also improving cocoa production in PNG,” she said.

The company sources most of its cocoa supply from three provinces – the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, East Sepik , and Central  – as well as some from East New Britain (ENB), Oro, Milne Bay, Morobe and Madang.

PHAMA Plus supported Queen Emma to send cocoa samples to chocolatiers in New Zealand as part of efforts to strengthen market linkages that create exposure for PNG cocoa and smallholder farmers.

In early 2023, Queen Emma Chocolate sent its first shipment of fine cocoa butter and powder to New Zealand-based cacao buyer and master chocolatier Oonagh Browne. The company now has repeat orders from some of the customers who received the sample shipments.

PHAMA Plus is also supporting Queen Emma Chocolate’s network of growers to attain organic certification for the New Zealand and Australia markets, directly responding to feedback and market demand for certified organic cocoa products.

‘The Cathliro Way’

In neighbouring Solomon Islands, where there are over 18,000 cocoa-farming households, Australia and New Zealand have partnered through PHAMA Plus’ with Cathliro Commodities Development, founded by local businesswoman Diana Yates. 

In the past few years, Cathliro has emerged as an industry leader in premium cocoa exports. From 2017 when the journey started with the export of a small batch of 200 kg quality beans to the UK to three years later, in 2020 with total shipments of almost 70 metric tonne (MT).

The Cathliro success story is a significant milestone for the entire Solomon Islands cocoa sector, proving that producers can successfully produce smoke-taint free cocoa beans and that exporters can source high quality beans from these farmers, giving suppliers like Cathliro the potential to tap into the premium cocoa market.

In 2020, PHAMA Plus helped Cathliro to identify potential buyers in the premium cocoa market and to help the company to send trial shipments. By early 2021 Cathliro’s network of premium buyers had expanded to six.

In addition, Cathliro has also received support from Australia’s private sector development program in Solomon Islands, Strongim Bisnis, to develop new international markets for its semi-processed cocoa products.

Cathliro has started producing products like un-tempered chocolate, cocoa nibs, cocoa husks, 100% cocoa, roasted peeled beans, and cocoa powder which all have a unique flavour.

“Our expansion into the premium market has not only helped us receive a higher price for quality beans, but it has also allowed the company to pay a higher price to farmers for both wet and dry beans in recognition of their ability sustain higher quality during production and the post-harvest process,” she says. 

“PHAMA Plus has supported us with our equipment to downstream our cocoa and helped us with sourcing international markets – we have exported beans to Belgium, UK and also New Zealand.”

Quality beans, quality ‘chocolat’

With an established factory and iconic store front on Port Vila’s main street, Vanuatu’s Gaston Chocolat’s close relationship with its network of rural cocoa suppliers made it an obvious choice for a partnership with PHAMA Plus.

Over the past few years, PHAMA Plus has partnered with Gaston to improve the sourcing and processing of quality cocoa beans to meet the food safety and quality standards that will enable them to succeed in high-quality premium export markets.

“It’s a little-known secret of chocolate making that the final flavours of high-quality chocolate are developed in the field through the cocoa bean fermentation and drying process,” says Gaston co-founder Olivia Fernandez, who has been using pure single origin Vanuatu cocoa to produce fine chocolates since 2017.

“We decided from day one to work with the cocoa growers and handle the whole harvest and post-harvest process, from the fruits on the trees to turning them into chocolate bars.”

In 2020, in an effort to boost local supplies of smoke-taint free high quality cocoa beans, PHAMA Plus supported Gaston to procure and distribute solar dryers to four of its main suppliers. While COVID-19 related delays slowed this process, Gaston is now regularly obtaining high-quality premium beans from three of their four key farmers.

Since the new solar dryers and fermentation boxes were established, the average price the company is willing to pay for the higher quality beans has jumped to just over AUD4 per kg. This is at least 40 per cent higher than other premium buyers in Vanuatu and almost double what farmers could expect to get from bulk buyers.

PHAMA Plus also works with regional governments and regulatory authorities to facilitate the sometimes complex, biosecurity compliance regime required for agricultural exports as well as supporting individual companies to navigate these requirements.

In Gaston’s case, PHAMA Plus has been able to support the company through the complexities of applying for two gateway certifications: the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) certificate and B-Corp. Ultimately these certifications pave the way for the company to sell its cocoa products at premium prices in new markets in Australia, New Zealand and USA where either HACCP or B-Corp certifications are required.

On its part, Gaston has invested more than AUD300,000 in new equipment and a new processing facility that can meet HACCP and B-Corp certification standards. 

Despite the considerable challenges of the past few years, the satisfaction and enthusiasm of all three of PHAMA Plus chocolate-making and cocoa exporting partners, is palpable.

Queen Emma’s Karina sums it up well: “My advice to would-be Pacific chocolate makers is: Go for it! 

“We have really good cocoa that we grow in the Pacific, much of it is not converted and it just gets shipped away and blended, so having products that are a local value-added product made with local high-quality beans, that is something to call our own, something to really be proud of.”

  • Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus Program – PHAMA Plus
  • info@phamaplus.com.au
  • www.phamaplus.com.au

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