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Cocoa—a return to the throne?

Thursday, November 15, 2012
Some of the varieties of local cocoa on show at Fete de la Cocoa. PHOTOS: WESLEY GIBBINGS


The late and legendary American cartoonist, Charles M Shultz, is famously quoted as saying: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” 
Today, cocoa industry stakeholders—from researchers to farmers to entrepreneurs—all suggest that more than a little love is required to stage a comeback on behalf of one of the greatest agricultural, but now endangered, assets the country has ever possessed. 
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Trinidad and Tobago produced upwards of 35,000 tonnes of cocoa annually. In 2012, total yields may struggle to reach 800 tonnes of prime Trinitario beans. The world’s largest producer, Ivory Coast, has already sold 1.1 million tonnes this year. 
According to cocoa breeder/researcher, Michel Bocarra, the high-priced commodity offers an opportunity to diversify agricultural output both at the level of primary production and value-added outputs. 
At the recent Fete De La Cocoa event staged by the Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) of the University of the West Indies, Bocarra, as if to prove the point, peddled 70 per cent grade chocolate bars at $50 a pop. 
Industry players both applaud and lament the fact that anyone producing cocoa in this country is assured of 100 per cent sales at premier world prices. For example, the daily average price for cocoa beans on world futures markets is in the vicinity of just under US$2,500 per tonne. 
The applause comes because climate and topography have combined to produce ideal growing conditions for production of high-grade cocoa while there is the pervasive complaint that, even at the best prices in the world, farming costs often greatly exceed what the market is offering for the commodity. Labour costs prove to be the greatest contributory factor. 
Though the International Cocoa Organisation has been recording climate-related price volatility this year, people like Bocarra contend that the rise of the middle class in a non-traditional chocolate-consuming nation such as China and the softer Indian market will soon witness a dramatic dominance in demand pressures over supply. 
Small, cottage industries such as Trinidad-based West Indian Skincare Company, through its Noka’oi Caribbean skincare lines, have recognised the potential of different markets. 
CEO Leigh Lopez says cocoa butter has proven to be among the more important inputs into a product line that does not require much explanation when it comes to purported benefits. 
Anthea’s Treasure Trove, which carries a similar tagline of better health and appearance, also exhibited at the CRU event. Founder/General Manager, Anola De Freitas, has her facility operating out of the Store Bay Beach Facility in Tobago. 
She uses a Facebook page and a network of direct salespersons in Trinidad, St Lucia, St Vincent and Barbados to promote sales of her products, including cocoa-based soaps and scents. 
The cocoa industry has also found space under the umbrella of the country’s tourism product via Grand Agro Tourism Ltd, run by Alison Godwin, who supervises tours of a traditional cocoa estate in Sangre Grande. 
For the price of one of Boccara’s chocolates, visitors are guided through a cocoa trail, visit a traditional cocoa house and may even bring a tent for an overnight visit or take a one-hour course on cultivating an organic kitchen garden using small spaces. 
Like the researchers and commodity experts, Godwin is an advocate of the multi-dimensional nature of the “cocoa experience.” 
The venture has been successful enough to recruit her a full-time tour guide in the person of Abeyola Olbano who was actually introduced to the facility through the Youth Training Employment and Partnership Programme (YTEPP). 
According to Boccara, nothing short of a transformation, maximising value added opportunities, would turn the industry around. The picture is somewhat dismal. 
Local cocoa estates currently produce and average of 250 kilos per hectare. In Ecuador, productivity per hectare is between two and five tonnes. 
Bocarra said issues such as planting methods, development of new varieties and other improvements in the value chain can help the country take advantage of a potentially lucrative market. 
Fete De La Cocoa was an event that told the cocoa story graphically and in plain, accessible language through well-informed experts and exhibitors and activities that included story-telling and competitions. It may not signify the return of cocoa to the throne after 200 years, but the exhibition perhaps demands an encore at other locations throughout the country. 


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