Cocoa industry opps, says food guru

Cocoa-producing countries in the Caribbean can expect to see an increase in demand for fine flavoured cocoa, even as climate change has resulted in reduced crop production worldwide, according to food technologist at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, Dr Darin Sukha.

Dr Darin Sukha demonstrating aspects of cocoa cultivation.
Dr Darin Sukha demonstrating aspects of cocoa cultivation.

Sukha, one of the guest presenters at this week’s Grenada Chocolate Festival, said the region now had to position itself to take advantage of the opportunities as they became available.

“The challenge for us is to rise to the occasion to meet the external demand for our beans, as well as to develop our local niche markets to promote our origins in terms of very good quality dark chocolate that showcases our culture, our heritage in cocoa production, as well as the uniqueness of production systems and people,” he told Barbados TODAY.

In the case of Grenada, cocoa appears to have succeeded nutmeg as the island’s main cash crop, since the latter was decimated by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

And with cocoa farmers now undertaking large-scale sustainable organic farming, Sukha said their focus was now not only on cocoa production, but also on chocolate making, thereby capturing the value chain.

Cocoa beans drying in the sun.
Cocoa beans drying in the sun.
Cocoa pods on display.
Cocoa pods on display.

There are currently two chocolate companies in St George’s exporting to the United States, Britain and other Caribbean islands, in addition to supplying the local market.

“And this has really only come about in the last couple years because the equipment to make chocolate on a small scale was not available prior to that. Now we have that technology, it’s been downsized; so we have a burgeoning segment of that.

“And if you look at what is happening in the US, as well in both the east and west coast, we have a lot of small scale bean-to-bar chocolate makers in origin . . . . There are two chocolate companies in Grenada. In Trinidad we have many, many bean-to-bar chocolatiers,” he said.

Sukha noted the Trinidadian-based Cocoa Research Centre trained individuals in the art of chocolate making, and had tutored over 120 people since 2013. The course is currently fully subscribed and the centre is now accepting bookings for next year.

Sukha noted there had been a trend over the last few years where more and more young professionals with disposable income had been buying old cocoa estates and entering the chocolate-making business.

“And being business-minded individuals, they’re trying to optimize on their investment on this land, which is a long-term investment for them, and seeking to produce chocolates.

“And this has a very positive effect in that it’s changing the demographic of what was your typical cocoa farmer. It’s also promoting investment into the sector in terms of actually planting new cocoa trees into the ground; in terms of being willing to make the investment in cocoa. Not from the cocoa production end, but from the chocolate-making end, which is where you really make your money,” he stated.

Sukha said, however, that despite the growing number of chocolatiers in the region, cocoa production was on the decline. According to him, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were the only countries that had witnessed an increase in production, while the numbers were down in most of the Anglophone countries.

He pointed out that this trend was the result of a range of socioeconomic factors, including an increased demand for land for uses other than agriculture, and a waning interest in agriculture across the Caribbean.

While funding agencies have attempted to kick-start operations in some countries, he lamented “there is very little continuity sometimes”.

Nevertheless, with regards to diversification of the region’s agriculture industry, Sukha noted cocoa was “a very good alternative” and a natural companion crop for countries, particularly those of the Windward Islands, which were once major banana producers.

With banana exports to the main market Europe on the decline for the past two decades, Suka said there were initiatives in Dominica, St Lucia, and St Vincent to try to promote cocoa as a viable cash crop.

Climate change is also said to be another contributing factor to declining yields.

“Cocoa trees flower as a result of stress. Most plants flower when they are exposed to dry conditions and they get water afterwards. In the past couple of years we’ve had . . . wet seasons that have been very dry, and dry seasons that have been very dry. So the trees are under a lot of physiological stress; so they are producing less pods.

“Before, we would have distinct cropping cycles where we would have a peak crop because the rains would come at a certain time, cause flowering, and we would have a peaking crop. Now we’re having more of a continuous crop,” Sukha explained.

He noted the trend was not only in the Caribbean, but in other cocoa-producing regions of the world.

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