Monday 12 March 2012

Changing times

My last day in Malaysia and Chow Boi has arranged a really interesting trip for me to visit a cocoa farm and meet some interesting industry folk.

We climbed out of Kuala Lumpur – into the Titiwangsa Mountains, home to the Genting Highland resorts. This is a very beautiful drive - wonderful forest in these hills, and cool. We meet up with a whole group of cocoa industry movers and shakers; they are all good friends and associates and have been involved in cocoa for many years.

We head off to a small town and meet Kou – a farmer who is also a trader. We meet him in his ‘shop’ full of cocoa bean sacks, and then head off to see his farm – and end up in a beautiful valley – with forest on the upper slopes, and cocoa and palm oil at the base of the valley. Kou’s cocoa farm is exemplary – he has been farming here since the mid 80s and the trees are extremely well managed and cared for. He can get 3000kg from a hectare through good management – including grafting, pruning, spraying against disease, and good hygiene. He is an innovative and intuitive farmer – taking on ideas from experts and then developing them further to work for him.

However, after 28 years in cocoa, he is about to give this all up and next year will replace the cocoa trees with oil palm. There are many reasons for this; the main one he gave was that he just cannot get the labour needed to work his plantations. Cocoa needs one person per hectare to carry out the intense management needed to ensure good harvest; Malaysians do not wish to work on farms, and so the only labour available is immigrant – but the government manages this very tightly and according to a model based mainly on oil palm – in which one person can manage 10 ha. So Kou finds it difficult to attract labour, train them (tending cocoa is very skilled) and then retaining them. He feels it is time he needs to step back from the farm (he is in his 60s) and so oil palm will provide his pension. Cocoa costs MR6000 a year/ha to produce and sells at only MR7000 a year/ha. The economics of oil palm are very different and earn a great deal more.

Our talk that day was mainly about this – the last death throws of the cocoa industry in Malaysia. The Malaysian Cocoa Board claims that the annual production is 20,000ha, but no-one I met that day could identify where that production came from. Cocoa is disappearing fast, being replaced mainly by oil palm, but also rubber. The talk was about resisting being sentimental about this, but the need to look to the future and the industry’s need to focus elsewhere on securing future cocoa supplies. Hence the industry’s focus on work with small holders in Indonesia, and also on the new ‘wild east’ of cocoa production – Vietnam and the Phillipines.

Thursday 8 March 2012

A school for chocolate

How lucky I was to come across Mervyn – he seems to be close to the heart of a really exciting movement to raise the chocolate game in Indonesia, and he very kindly arranged for me to meet two of the critical actors in this. William Chuang is one of the Managing Directors of Petra Foods; his father started the company and so he has lived and breathed cocoa all his life, cocoa flows through his veins. It was such a treat to meet someone not only so knowledgeable about the business – all the ins and outs of the international cocoa trade, the many issues facing the industry – but also who really likes chocolate and is as committed to raising awareness about how fantastic it can beas he is to making sure the business runs effectively.

He had a dream to set up a chocolate school and has achieved that – a school where professionals and amateurs can learn more about getting the most out of chocolate. His next ambition is for a chocolate museum – which if the School is a measure to go by – will be fantastic.

The Chocolate School is run by Andy Van Den Broeck, a Belgian chocolate maker who has the fantastic job of both running the school but also consultant to the Indonesian chocolate companies in the Petra Foods family. He kindly agreed to show me the school on Saturday and I had a wonderful indulgent morning – both talking and eating chocolate. The school itself is in a shopping mall, and how different it must be from all other shops for passers by to peer into. When there is a class it must be fascinating and tantalizing viewing, peering through the large windows and watching people create wonderful chocolate delights.

There are many such chocolate schools in Europe; for example, I think there are at least two in Edinburgh – and even occasional workshops in Acharn! This Indonesian school offers the same high quality training – learning about chocolate, how it is made from cocoa, how to handle and temper, how to taste, how to make delicious pralines, how to decorate. In addition it can also offer a day on a cocoa farm and visiting a chocolate factory! Chocolate tourism of the very best quality – I would recommend it to anyone; Indonesia is a fascinating country, and I could see the Chocolate School courses being a must-do visitor activity in Jakarta.

There is a growing interest in high quality chocolate in Jakarta’s top hotels and restaurants and so the school is really responding to that. Most of the domestic market though is for milk chocolate confection – brands Silver Queen and Delfi are all popular brands under the Petra Food company. William’s company works at all levels of chocolate – trading, processing, chocolate making and product retail. They are also distributors for some major brands – such as Japan’s Royce'. Indeed they have just brought Royce chocolates to Jakarta and after our meeting I went down to the basement of the mall we were in to the Food Hall and found the Royce' counter. One of the lines that Royce' make is Nama chocolates; they are amazing – sort of naked ganache – perfect rectangular blocks of cocoa dusted chocolate ganache, with no chocolate shell around them. They are so simple and exquisitely pure.

William’s knowledge of the cocoa world is immense, so our conversation was fascinating. He patiently and very clearly explained to me the way the market works – for once I really think I do understand why commodity futures exist and how they work! But all is not great in the cocoa world; it seems that we are eating more cocoa than can be grown. In fact we consumed 367 million tonnes of cocoa last year and only 366 million tonnes were produced. Production is going down, and demand ever-increasing – which will lead inevitably to higher prices. I hope this means that as people have to pay more they will want better quality!

Monday 5 March 2012

A glimpse at the chocolate industry

I had been fortunate to make an interesting contact before I went to Jakarta, Mervyn Pereira, who is very knowledgeable about the industry and enthusiastic about cocoa and chocolate in Java in particular. Mervyn had arranged for me to visit a private cocoa farm east of Jakarta and then meet Ani of Delfi Foods, at their chocolate factory in Bandung.

The trip to the cocoa plantation took us a very dramatic mountain pass above Bogor – the car just kept driving up hill. As we continued up, the vegetation began to change and we entered the land of tea – the tea bushes clipped short by constant picking. Over the pass, and we descended into a lush valley of paddy and banana plantations.

The cocoa plantation was a chance to see a much larger scale enterprise than anything else seen to date. It was large – over 300ha, and quite old – over 35 years. It was very well tended – good clean pods growing on healthy looking trees. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, there was no one there to tell us about it – and it was a holiday and so there was no one around. A young man did turn up and offered to show us around – but as he was in administration – he struggled a little with our questions about the cocoa! He did take us to see the fermentation plant – but did not have the key to the gates – so we had to peer over and through fences to get a look. It was a big set up, and as you can see from the photos, banks of fermentation boxes, stepped so that each day they can be easily emptied into the next box. After six days of fermentation, the cocoa beans are then laid out on racks to dry naturally in the sun.

Ani at Delfi is their Sourcing and Sustainability Officer; she is immensely knowledgeable about the industry and was able to tell us amongst many other things, about the Delfi SEEDS (Social Economic Environmental Development for Sustainability) programme. This is a programme working with smallholders in mainly Lampung and Sulawesi on improving both growing practice and fermentation. The lack of fermentation practice is partly a hangover she said from when cocoa first came to Indonesia; it was introduced from Malaysia and so farmers adopted their practice of not fermenting. One of their biggest markets was the US – and there they make chocolate with unfermented beans – that is how they like it!

Ani’s office is in an annex to the main cocoa processing plant, which we would not be able to visit. At the Annex they receive and sort all the beans – going through the first preparatory stages of the processing by cleaning the beans. Ani showed us the huge warehouse – piled high with stacks of beans from around the world – including Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. As all unloading and stacking was being done by hand, the warehouse was strangely quiet – but for the soft noise of the dry beans shifting in the sacks as they are being stacked; it is possible to tell how well they are dried by that noise we were told.

Ani then introduced us to the lab team who check the quality of the beans; they check density, moisture content, the quality – in terms of percentage of damaged or mouldy beans, and for slaty beans – a term I had heard before but had never physically seen what was meant by it. These are unfermented beans – and there needs to be only a certain percentage of these in a batch, otherwise the beans are difficult to process.

Cocoa and chocolate are big business here – both for export and for the domestic market, Indonesia being the third biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Ninety percent of the cocoa is still produced by smallholders and so working with them to ensure continued supply of quality cocoa is an enormous task. SEEDS is just one of many programmes by both NGOs and the big players – such as Delfi and Mars. There are many threats and problems to future cocoa supply though, and I heard more about this the following day.

Friday 2 March 2012

Can chocolate save the Sumatran tiger?


I have just returned from the most amazing trip – all cocoa exploration should be like this! I was put in touch with WWF Indonesia who are working with subistence farmers in the area around the Bukit Barisan Seletan National Park, in south east Sumatra. Sumatra is the largest island in Indonesia and the furthest west. An area of the Bukit Barisan Mountains was declared by UNESCO in 2004 as a World Heritage Site, ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’. This area is home amongst other things to rare Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants.

In 2006 WWF started work with farmers who were encroaching into National Park land; they were clearing forest to plant coffee. Working with farmers in the buffer zone around the Park, WWF are supporting them to develop better farming practices so that they can get better value out of their land and so reduce their dependeny on land and resources within the Park.

One of the crops that farmers are keen to grow is cocoa. Indonesia is the third largest producer of cocoa in the world, and most of this cocoa is grown by smallholders – in Sumatra, Sabah, Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Flores, and Papua.

My trip was facilitated by WWF, and hosted by Koperasi Mitra Tani (KOMIT), a coperative developed by the farmers in the 12 pilot villages that WWF is working with. They have been working with farmers to improve both management of coffee and cocoa on their farms, but also better processing techniques to improve the value of their crops. KOMIT have also gone through a certification process with Rainforest Alliance.

The KOMIT team
With WWF project officer Sutarna, KOMIT head Mamhudi, and training co-orinator Sujarwo, we set off to meet some of the cocoa farmers. The drive from Bandar Lampung went through rich agricultural land – farmed mainly as paddy. There were extraordinary buildings across the landscape though – vast concrete towers, that looked like prisons from afar – but clearly there were far too many of them to be that. They were very fortress like in appearance – no windows and behind high walls. They are infact birds nest farms (for soup!) – great skycrapers for swallows to nest in; the swallows are attracted by the high insect life over the paddy fields and farms, and are a beautiful site in the afternoon, swooping around in clouds. At first I thought they would just be in farmland – but they were also built in villages and town, and often the front facade done up to look like a proper house, with false windows!

As we got closer to the National Park it got hillier and more wooded, until we were climbing up a steep road and suddenly the landscape and vegetation changed and we were in the quiet rich shade of high forest. Fantastic. We stopped at one point to talk to a ranger, and as I emerged from the air conditioned car, a wall of noice hit me – insects and birds – the most fabulous forest symphony. And somewhere, lurking in those trees watchful and wary of us human intruders, are bears, tigers, rhinos and more.

Sumatrans farm in a very ecological way; they have paddy fields of rice and some other crops, but around their houses they have ‘forest gardens’; these are areas of permanent crops – such as coffee and cocoa, grown in a mixture with anything else thrown in – fodder trees and plants for their goats and cows, fruit for the household and market, cash crops such as pepper and rubber. It was often said to me on the trip that this might not be the ‘most efficient’ way of farming – which I think could be challenged. It certainly spreads risk for the farmers: many of these crops are commodities and they are very sensitive to international price fluctuations. Which crop to invest in – you could chose coffee and then that fails for a year or the price sinks. So stick with them all.

Through the cooperative farmers are learning to improve the cocoa crops by grafting; they learn how to manage them and thin out pods when there are too many and so encourage a good crop. They are even experimenting with ‘condoming’ pods – covering them with plastic bags to prevent black pod weevil and other diseases.

And they are encouraging farmers to ferment beans and increase the value of their crop. This though seems to be difficult: farmers have a number of reasons why they cannot be encourage to ferment:

Firstly – they often need the money and waiting a further 5 or 6 days to get a sellable product is too long. The second though and the most significant is that they do not see a great deal of benefit in the differential in price. If they ferment beans, they are selecting the best quality beans, and then they spend 5 or 6 days managing the fermentation process. If they don’t get any more for the kilogramme at the end of this process, why bother? The trading system here seems to work against the farners – very often traders will give only a very small increase for fermented over non fermented.

So, much of our discussion was about this and how KOMIT could negotiate a better deal for farmers who ferment. They are interested in working with me – initially to see if the beans are any good for chocolate. No beans available at the moment, but the first main harvest is in April/May and they will send samples then, and we will test how well they turn into chocolate. If this works out it will be a wonderful product – just think with every bar bought, this supports the farmers and WWF in saving tigers! Hurrah!

a ripe cocoa pod showing the white pulp around the bean