As Featured on Forbes on August 24, 2019:
“There is a revolution taking place!” exclaims Machel Montano.
To hear the Caribbean’s most eminent soca star gush about the revival of the Caribbean cocoa industry is nothing short of infectious. Trinidad and Tobago, Montano’s homeland, has been experiencing a steady comeback after a century of progressive decline in cocoa production— from 30,000 tons per annum to less than 500 tons— and the musical icon is deeply invested in taking the industry back to its original glory.
Montano’s tenacity as a regional pioneer in sustainability, lead to the 2014 launch of his very own brand of organic artisanal 60% dark chocolate made of Trinitario, an exclusive variety of cocoa that was conceived in Trinidad during the 18th century. Trinitario is the world’s most exclusive cocoa hybrid— and one of the rarest— representing only 5% of all cocoa. Another 5% of the world’s cocoa production belongs to Criollo, the finest pure cocoa in the world.
Criollo and Trinitario, the two finest and most rare cocoa varieties, only grow in 23 countries, 8 of which are in the Caribbean. 100% of cocoa exports from Grenada, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Dominica consist of either Criollo or Trinitario while 95% of Jamaica’s cocoa exports consist of these fine cocoa varieties.
“What we have here is the equivalent of champagne grapes,” says Nick Davis, the owner of One One Cacao, an award-winning bean to bar company based in Kingston Jamaica. “There are very few areas in which the Caribbean has a natural advantage in products, and this is one. The soil in the Caribbean is ideal for fine flavour cacao.”
In recent years, regional cocoa-preneurs have been reviving the niche industry—and nowhere are there more opportunities for a potential explosion. The expansion of speciality of premium chocolate products has resulted in artisan chocolate becoming the fastest-growing segment in the global chocolate market. According to the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, there are fewer than 500 fine chocolate makers and manufacturers in the world and 100 of these are based in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Bean to bar, a process by which producers have the full control over production, is the most coveted trend in craft chocolate, conceived by Mott Green at The Grenada Chocolate Company. Today Grenada has five bean-to-bar chocolate makers and the country produces about 800 tons of cocoa per year, contributing to 6% of GDP.
In St. Lucia, bean to bar chocolate has become a major cottage industry and income earner for female entrepreneurs. The Saint Lucia Network of Rural Women Producers were recently presented with a processing plant in Micoud and have begun to produce 60%, 70% and 80% dark chocolate under the name “Micoud”. Maria Jackson, St. Lucia’s first female chocolatier, has developed a handcrafted chocolate line called Cacao Sainte Lucie, which is being sold island-wide.
Northward, in Jamaica, annual production dropped from 2,000 tons per annum to 200-400 tons between 1995 and 2010 but has expanded in recent times, with a significant proportion of locally-grown beans being directed to the markets of Europe, Japan and the United States. Hundreds of acres of Jamaican cocoa orchards have been rehabilitated and thousands of farmers have gotten involved in production.
But the industry has had its challenges. Farmers have complained about limited access to capital and crops have suffered decline due to extreme weather and the pressures of climate change. Criollo cocoa has been particularly vulnerable to environmental threats.
What is especially tragic is that farmers and governments are often unaware of the value of their cocoa beans, resulting in trade decisions being made on the basis of trends in global mass-production. Top producing countries such as the Ivory Coast and Ghana produce hundreds of thousands of tons of mass-quality bulk cocoa— exceeding global demand and negatively impacting world chocolate prices.
Caribbean cocoa is fine-quality, typically organic and fair trade, yet many farmers and governments fail to distinguish it from mass-produced cocoa, leaving cocoa pods to rot on trees and cocoa exports to be under-valued. The cultivation of cocoa for domestic production of craft chocolate has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
“Jamaica has one of the top cocoa beans in the world but they are undervalued,” explain husband and wife team, Wouter Tjeertes and Rennae Johnson, owners of Pure Chocolate Company, a bean to bar factory based in Trelawny Jamaica. “The government sells the chocolate in bulk to mass producers and are missing the boat.”
But the export of high-end raw materials, if priced correctly, is a wonderful thing.
Desmond Jadusingh, owner of the 300-acre Bachelor's Hall Estate, located in the parish of St. Thomas in Jamaica, has made a living growing and exporting some of the world’s finest cocoa to the most exclusive artisanal brands in the world. Jadusingh’s organic cocoa can be found in award-winning craft brands such as Soma Chocolatemaker, Rogue Chocolatier, Valrhona and Pump Street Chocolate. High-end chocolate makers are willing to pay farmers such as Jadusingh a significant premium over mass-produced beans.
Locally produced artisanal brands have also been holding their own in the global market, garnering international awards and reflecting the indigenous flavours and colours of the region.
One One Cacao chocolate features flavours that are combined with Caribbean superfoods such as coconut sugar, coconut ash, soursop, cashew, Jamaican sea salt, naseberry, callaloo, wild mountain berries, vanilla pods, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Pure Chocolate Company seasons their dark chocolate with unique local flavours such as jerk seasoning and rum and have partnered with Jamaican artist, Taj Francis to create locally-inspired packaging. “We make fantastic high-end chocolate and we give back in the right way,” say the owners.
The Machel Montano Foundation for Greatness has supported the production of artisan chocolates by providing cocoa-producing communities with the tools required to make chocolate from cocoa that they grow. This support recently enabled the community of Siparia Trinidad to launch its very own brand of 60% and 70% dark chocolate, called Daisy Dahlin.
Craft brands are making a mark in the local and regional market, selling at farmers markets, speciality shops, hotels, gift shops, B2B businesses, rum companies, bakeries, cafés and tourist experiences. The success of this niche industry relies on high demand by sophisticated consumers who are willing to pay a premium to satisfy their refined palates.
There is a clear path for craft chocolate exports from the region to the more mature markets of North America, Western Europe and Japan, and some brands have already begun to pave the way, such as the Trinidad & Tobago Single-Estate Chocolate Collection that was launched at Harrods in 2018.
Given the small size of the industry, the region’s competitive advantage is likely to boost its success as an exporter of artisan chocolate, especially given that the market has been largely untapped— only 1.5% of all chocolate exports currently originate in the Caribbean.
“We are where wine was 50-60 years ago with cocoa. We are all starting in the same place. We are all using the same equipment,” says Davis of the global craft chocolate industry.
“Our advantage is clear. We don’t have to import the raw materials. We can be present from start to finish. If we have the raw materials and we produce one of the top-selling consumer products in the world, then we should benefit from the higher margins as well.”