UNLIKE anything else in the world of cocoa, the need for protecting the genetic diversity of the Trinitario variety of cocoa bean is key for the future success of the sector in Trinidad and Tobago. The rapid decline and imminent disappearance of the bean ensured its need for immediate and strong protection.
Trinidad and Tobago Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC) was set up as a public-private partnership (PPP) to develop a sustainable business to promote the cocoa sector in T&T.
This was done through the Ministry of Agriculture via a PPP that was supported by InvesTT, the Ministry of Trade and Ministry of Planning. All of these government entities played a substantial part in establishing a business model that facilitated a memorandum of understanding for technical assistance from the government and the private sector investment from local and UK-based investors. Local collaborators included EXIMBank, the Agricultural Development Bank, Nedco and the Cocoa Development Company. Further assistance came from the Cocoa Research Centre which provided expertise in primary and secondary processing.
A broad group of stakeholders is on board with the project and the single biggest lesson that has been learned throughout the operation is that engagement, consultation and preparation are absolutely vital. This has been especially pertinent in getting the necessary permits and documentation for setting up a business, opening bank accounts, company registration, all of which was a slow process dealing with a fragmented system. InvesTT did provide guidance navigating this field, but nevertheless the system, especially when it involves international investors, is very complicated. Customs procedures for importing the required chocolate machinery also proved to be very difficult and complex.
TTFCC expected to be an agro-processor when it was finally established. They were aiming to provide raw, processed cocoa to chocolate companies to then make into finished chocolates. It turned out that that was not viable due to the high costs of Trinitario cocoa, leading the company to begin making finished chocolate themselves. In hindsight, what the company now realises is the necessity of understanding the market to be targeted and spending time focussing on who it is, where it is and how it wants the chocolate—in terms of growing, processing and packaging the product. That is the cornerstone of any decision to get involved in cocoa and extends way above and beyond the mere consideration of simply wanting to do it. Even though TTFCC thought it had an idea, having spoken with companies in Europe and America, it did not turn out to be the case.
As such, the target market changed very quickly early on in the project and the company has worked closely with the likes of Hilton, Hyatt, Caribbean Airlines and Angostura Distillers. Underlying everything, however, is that Trinitario cocoa is very expensive in comparison to cocoa from other regions of the world. T&T needs to improve the quality and the yield of its cocoa to make it more economically viable and to ensure that the full price paid is justifiable. It needs to be complemented by standards of processing and packaging and it needs to be marketed appropriately to be shared with the audience.
To begin with, the quality of the beans that were produced by farmers locally were poor and the challenges of getting quality material and therefore having the ability to sell them internationally were a stranglehold over TTFCC in those early days. A plethora of reasons was behind the initial substandard quality of the beans. yet this has since improved through training and capacity building. Harvesting, fermenting, drying and effective management of estates all have a bearing on the flavour characteristics and yield of the cocoa. A poor material will make a poor product, no matter how advanced the machinery may be.
As the cost of Trinitario cocoa is very high in comparison to beans worldwide, for us to get the full value from it, quality must exist throughout the process and the product that we as Trinidadians produce is of the best quality to obtain the full price. With uses of cocoa butter expanding in the culinary world and for beauty products, if we can demonstrate that the model of producing cocoa in this country can work financially, we stand on the cusp of a unique opportunity to return to the fore a lost industry of this country.