Tuesday 30 October 2012

A Car Spa!

In a taxi today, we passed a sign for a Car Spa! And there were large black shiny cars being manicured and groomed by teams of fervent young men, carefully removing the residue of a hot dusty city from the metalwork. It made me wonder what other exotic treatments might be on offer – a bit of metal retempering, detoxing the oil sump, realigning its torque. I imagined the results, chilled out cars, fragrant and relaxed and ready to go back to the stresses and tensions of Jakarta traffic. The cars would have been treated to the sort of attention that is normally only tendered on racing cars in Formula One; they would emerge feeling just a little lighter on their tyres, zippier in their acceleration, nippier in their lane changing. They would feel like those cars in the adverts – out there on the open desert road, or the sweeping mountain bends.

In reality, they just got hoovered and polished, and they had to get back out there in the bumper to bumper gridlock. But car and motorbike washing and polishing is serious business here. Those that cannot afford a Spa are as lovingly washed down in a small stream or on the banks of a large river. I shall have to get the hose and bucket out when I get home I think; I am feeling very neglectful of our poor old car.

Monday 29 October 2012

A second look

I was fortunate yesterday to be able to follow up my February visit to a plantation near Cianjur, in West Java. Back then, we had visited the plantation on a Friday, which was a holiday and were unable to talk to anyone there about it. This time I was accompanied by owner Tiara Setiadi, and how blessed was I – it was a fascinating visit; Tiara’s father set up this farm in the 1970s and so he has grown up with it himself, and knows it like the back of his hand. He is very concerned about long term sustainability issues for cocoa in Indonesia – not just for his own farm but more widely within the industry.

This is a huge farm – 900 or so hectares near Cianjur, with another larger farm some distance away. Tiara is very focussed not only on rehabilitating the cocoa stock – grafting new clones, replanting old trees - but also in rehabilitating the soil and the microclimate about the tree crop. He argues that plantation culture remove cocoa trees from their natural preferred environment – as an understory plant in a forest. Growers push trees with fertilizers, pesticides and lack of shade to get the highest yields – but this, he feels, is ultimately unsustainable. His focus is now on the soil, improving the genetics of the trees (not just for yield volume and disease resistance, but also taste) and managing the trees to ensure good health and production. He has been planting an overstorey of mahogany, teak and coconuts – all helping to create a more natural microclimate for the cocoa. His observation is that this seems to work – he has not suffered the same losses as others with the recent prolonged drought.

Since our February visit, the farm has received UTZ certification – judged on environmental, social and economic criteria, and new signs have appeared around the plantation

The real treat for me was the tour of the fermention processing area. I have to admit to really loving that sour, fermenting vegetation smell of silage – and cocoa fermentation is the same smell with added chocolate notes! When we had visited before we had been able to only look over the fence into the processing centre – but now I could see and understand what is going on.

Fermentation is critical to draw out the complex range of chocolate flavours that we love, and getting it right takes practice, knowledge and skill. Too little fermentation and the beans' flavour potential is not achieved, too much and Tiara tells me it smells ‘hammy’. Beans need to be turned every two days to mix them up and ensure that those in the middle of the box are fermenting as well as those on the edge. Turning brings oxygen into the mass of beans and this ensures an aerobic fermentation, producing acids and it is these that soak into the beans and initiate the changes needed to bring out the flavours.
To make turning easier, the boxes are arranged on a giant staircase, and as you can see the beans are easily transferred and turned to the next box below. When they are done, they need to be slowly dried I the sun; this can take 5 to 6 days, with constant stirring to make sure that the beans completely dry out and do not rot.

I am very excited to have a bag of beautiful cocoa beans from this farm for Duffy to test. These are really fine quality; produced through exceptional good practice and knowledge.

Sunday 28 October 2012

A bag full of cocoa

One of the mysteries to me of the cocoa industry is the supply chain, and today we were able to meet a ‘middle trader’ in Kota Agung. There are local traders; these are guys who buy straight from the farmers, often buying one or two sacks at a time, use a motorbike to transport the sacks. They sell on to the middle traders. The middle traders buy from local traders but will also buy from farmers direct, if the farmers bring the beans to the warehouse. The middle traders check the quality of the beans, dry them more if needed, remove much of the rubbish and attempt to ‘grade’ them – by size. They then sell them on the export traders. At each stage of this chain, each agent is attempting to make a living obviously, and they all seem to be using the London Terminal Market price as a reference point. So as the farmer is getting a high proportion this means that the intermediaries are squeezed a little – so to ensure their own viability they need to deal with high volumes of cocoa fairly fast to ensure income. 
So our visit gave me a view into this stage. We turned up at a large warehouse, lined with large sacks of cocoa and coffee. It was the middle of the day – so very hot under the high tin roof, but made even hotter by a huge wood fuelled drier at the back of the shed – on the left in the picture above. On the right and in the centre are two huge blue machines used to grade (by size) beans – either cocoa or coffee – the trader deals in both. All the cocoa beans were unfermented – the trader didn’t deal with fermented at all – no supply and no demand. If fermented beans come in they would probably get mixed in with the unfermented.

If beans come in from local traders or farmers that are really poor quality they would bring the price down. It turns out the that the sacks piled up were not full of cocoa beans – but waste from the cleaning and grading process, which the trader sells on as animal feed. Nothing thrown away if possible.

So, given that we were in a warehouse of beans and this was a trader, I felt compelled to buy some beans. A small sample was sorted for me – carefully weighed to 2kg and the IR40,000 transaction undertaken. Lovely Sumatran, unfermented beans

A small word on the economics of this. The London Terminal Market price is the price of beans on the portside in London; this price has more to do with the price of cocoa as a commodity than the price of production of cocoa, or indeed any aspect of quality of flavour – so although it sounds great when people say that Indonesian farmers get 80% or so of the LTM price for their beans, in fact it bears little relation to how much of their work has gone into producing the beans. And as Indonesian smallholders tend to be growing low grade chocolate, and don’t ferment it – the industry imposes a reduction for this poorer quality that they term FAQ – Fair Average Quality price.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Progress at KOMIT, Kota Agung

removing wet beans from the cocoa pods
After a day acclimatising in Jakarta, we set off to Lampung, to visit the WWF guys and Komit project (see March 3rd post). The harvest has been poor this year in Lampung – it has been really very dry – and it was weird to see what should be tropical verdancy looking a little lack lustre – dry river beds, dry unhappy looking cocoa trees, empty fish ponds outside people’s houses (domestic fish farming rather than ornamental). The cocoa beans are small and not good – so harvest has been poor and unrewarding. There are still a few months more to go – but unless there is rain soon it might be more of the same.

We had hoped to visit Tampang – a village on the peninsula; the only way to get there is by a 3-hour boat ride. I was looking forward to this, but on the morning we were due to depart we heard that our plans had changed. There was a boat going – but none returning until Saturday – Friday is a big Muslim holiday here – so no boat even on Thursday the day before. Another time maybe.

drying unfermented beans
The project has been trying to encourage individual farmers to increase the value of their crop by fermenting their beans on their own farms. However, for a number of reasons they have proved reluctant to do this. At present they just remove beans from the pod, lay them out in the sun for one or two days until they are dried. For this if they take the beans to the trader, they can get IR19,000 per kg (current US commodity price is equivalent to IR24,000/kg for fermented beans). If they ferment the beans, it is an additional minimum 6 days work – 5 or 6 days to ferment, and time to dry. And often traders are not prepared to pay any extra for fermented beans and if they do it will be about IR21,000 if they are lucky. For most farmers this is not worth the extra work or indeed the delay in getting paid for the beans; cash flow is a real problem for subsistence farmers and often the need for immediate cash will override the potential of a better price in the future.

fermentation boxes ready to go
So, what would make a difference? The cocoa industry here is investing in a range of programmes around sustainability to essentially keep farmers in cocoa. To do this, farmers have to get more reward for their cocoa, and the business sees this as coming through better management of cocoa trees as well as fermenting to increase value.

So, if farmers won’t ferment for themselves, why not get someone else to do it? The model emerging is for processing centres to buy wet beans (beans removed from the pod) and then the fermentation is done in one unit, well managed, producing a high quality product. This model is proving popular with farmers where it is in place, and we visited one such community.

KOMIT are planning to establish their own processing plant following this model. Training has been provided to a number of farmers and two will manage the two centres. Mr Tukiman showed us the fermentation boxes he has prepared at Pemerihan village, and the site where the processing plant will be. This village is on the edge of the national park, and those farmers on the park side of the road have given up managing their cocoa as it attracts elephants! Another village we visited had lost 4 goats to a tiger – driven into the village farms by the drought. So living next to a National Park has serious implications, and the projects aim to work with farmers to improve their livehoods is important.

A second trip to Indonesia starts auspiciously

My second trip to Indonesia started with a ferry across the Clyde! I had been at the National Mod with winning choir (no desire here to be modest – Go Aberfeldy and District Gaelic Choir) held this year in Dunoon. Buoyed by success at the Mod, I hoped that this trip would be a good one – and I would come home this time with beans.

Jakarta’s heat and bustle does not hit you immediately when you arrive at the airport - it is a calm, unhurried pace – until you emerge to the outside world and suddenly everyone wants your attention - luggage handlers, taxi drivers - or indeed brokers; all vying for your trade. My friends had emphasised to me that I should only go with Blue Bird – but all taxi drivers now seem to wear blue shirts and have companies that sound a little like Blue Bird – Flying Bird, Blue Taxi. Momentarily misguided I found myself being lead into a vast parkng lot and realised that the blue shirted, Blue Bird ID tag driver leading me – was not the real thing. Back to the real Blue Bird queue, thankful that I had been here before and my friend’s advice had been so emphatic.

My trip to their house was quite quick – less than an hour. Last Friday evening my husband’s trip took 2.5 hours! The traffic is so notoriously gridlocked that people take their office with them – sitting in the car with 3G internet connections for laptops and mobile phones. There is even a business that plans to use this captive audience for advertising – using those back of the chair TV screens. Few hawkers though – unlike 20 years ago in Lagos, Nigeria, where traffic was as notorious and stuck in your car hawkers would bring you newspapers, food, groceries, this and that and in the early days of mobile phones a mobile telephone service!