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From steel to cocoa Rebuilding the Cocoa Kingdom

Published: 
Monday, May 23, 2016
Directors Kailash and Quincy Winklaar enjoying the fruit from a cocoa pod on the Gran Couva Cocoa Estate. PHOTO: TONY HOWELL

The steel industry may have fallen but one of T&T’s main players in the industry, Kampta Persaud, is now now making his mark in the production of fine-flavoured cocoa beans.

Persaud, who is the CEO of Varma Iron & Steel Company Limited, is best known in T&T for providing steel products. What most people don’t know is Persaud has attained international recognition for producing some of the best cocoa beans in the world.

Last October, Persad, his daughter Kailash Winklaar and her husband Quincy Winklaar won an international cocoa award from the Cocoa of Excellence Programme for an outstanding sample of cocoa they produced. They were presented with the award at the Salon Du Chocolat, a yearly chocolate trade fair held in Paris, France.

In an interview, Persad said he wanted to restore cocoa to its former glory. Expressing his elation after winning the award, Persad said it was the first time that his company entered the competition.

“The competition is held every two years. We submitted our samples to the Cocoa Research Centre of UWI, St Augustine and the samples were sent to Paris to be tested through the Cocoa of Excellence (CoEx) Programme,” Persad said.

 A total of 146 samples of cocoa beans from 35 countries were entered. 

“Fifty of those were chosen to be processed into chocolate by 26 professional chocolatiers. From those 50, 17 finalists were chosen to receive an award,” said Persaud.

With the award giving him even more motivation, Persaud said he hoped cocoa production could boost T&T’s unstable economy. 

“Cocoa is very hard work and we have a culture that sees anything to do with working hard or working within a field as inferior. Cocoa is in our DNA. We have the capital, knowledge, history and the lands, but we do not have things in place to ensure that. We as Trinidadians should be proud, as our country is famous for one of the three types of cocoa—Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario—the Trinitario being a hybrid of the other two,” he said.

Recalling the days of migrant labour, Persaud said it has always existed in the cocoa industry of T&T. 

“First, the planters used Amerindian labour and later African slaves. When slavery was abolished, indentured Indian labour was used on the plantations. It was after the end of this that (cocoa declined), due to firstly a lack of labour and secondly the collapse of prices,” he said.

Drawing reference to Ecuador, Persaud made mention of how people from Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil were going over to work in the fields. This has caused Ecuador to be in the running for the 4th largest cocoa bean producer in the world by 2016.

“We have locals from here going to Canada and the United States to work in the fields picking apples and grapes. Now why is this? It is because once they are not seen by those they deem “important”, it is fine. So if we are going to those countries, why can’t we bring in those who are willing to work to our shores?” Persaud said.

 He boasted that T&T was the world’s third highest producer of cocoa, after Venezuela and Ecuador, producing 20 per cent or 35,000 tonnes of the world’s cocoa in 1830.

“Today our production stands at a meagre 400 tonnes. Since purchasing the estate in 2003, our goal is to, by 2018, produce 800 tonnes of beans and by 2020 produce 2,000 tonnes.”

The San Juan Estate, located on the “Chocolate Soils” region of the Monserrat Hills in Gran Couva, is the largest and oldest cocoa estate in Trinidad. 

The estate, comprising 1,000 acres, was established in 1880 by French Corsican immigrant to Trinidad, Francois Agostini and has operated continuously ever since. In 2003, the estate changed hands and now operates under Hendelschaft Agricultural Holdings Ltd.

“Initially, the land was bought to be used as a place to build a home. However, after seeing how much history that the lands have, we decided to allow the legacy to live on. Currently we employ 40 workers, all of whom are a bit older, but they have a history or legacy with the estate. They know the proper processes that come with cocoa production,” Persaud said.

The T&T Guardian was treated to a mini-tour of the estate by Kailash and Quincy. The estate contrasted the past and future as buildings were under construction to replace some of the others, worn down from the times. Small cottages are provided for workers of the estate if they requested one. 

“It makes more sense for them to stay on the estate. It is somewhat out of the way and we make it accessible to them to not worry about getting to work in the morning,” said Kailash. 

The couple has also decided to live on the estate and are in the process of constructing their home there. The home is to be completed with a laboratory for their own research into cocoa. While traversing through the estate, they spoke about some of the problems they have faced, pointing out the aftermath of intentionally-set fires to different areas, and one area where a small fire was still burning.

“We give someone the task of checking around every 24 hours. They are usually equipped with backpack water spray cans and if the blaze gets too serious, we are forced to use buckets filled with water carried by a pick-up truck. It’s all in effort to save a legacy,” said Kailash. 

“Excellence is a habit and we plan on continuing to provide an exceptional quality of cocoa for as long as we can,” she added.

While many other farmers have struggled with marketing their cocoa, Persaud and his family have been able to successfully export the crop. Last week, farmers from the Siparia and Erin regions called on Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat to operationalise the Cocoa Development Company, saying thousands of cocoa beans are rotting in the fields. The minister has been holding discussions with the cocoa farmers to boost cocoa production and export.

KEVON MAHARAJ