“Bring the beans over here,” Leah says to a farmer, who came along with his two sons from Vaisala village. “70 kg of wet beans,” Leah records in her notebook and hands 140 tala over to the farmer. “This is twice higher volume what this farmer was usually bringing three years back,” explains further Leah. She is an administrator at Savai’i Koko company operating near the village of Asau in the northwest corner of Savai’i island.
The company is owned and run by Ainuu Tupai Saleimoa Vaai, who represents the fourth generation of cocoa growers within Vaai family originated in Savai’i. Although living on Upolu island for long years, Saleimoa has not forgotten about his Savai’i roots and his fellowmen. He has been engaged in the cocoa industry since 2014 when the family legacy of cocoa cultivation was passed on to him by his father. He has a vision of strong and self-reliant Savai’i community, making a living from cocoa production and at the same time, taking care of ancestral lands and protect Savai’i precious ecosystem.
“Since 2014 Savai’i Koko has been partnering with J H Whittaker’s & Sons chocolate company and supplies them with some 30 tons of dried cocoa beans per year,” Saleimoa explains.
“In 2017, the partnership led into the development of Samoa Cocoa Improvement Export Programme run by SPS Biosecurity. This unique Programme has provided an excellent venue for revitalizing Savai’i cocoa industry and in the same time supporting smallholder farmers,” clarifies Keith Budd, SPS senior consultant.
Farming in western Savai’i has always been everything besides easy due to rough volcanic terrain, high air salinity, visiting cyclones, and isolations from the markets. In recent years, also climate change has impacted on local agriculture and manifested by a prolonged period of droughts. Farmers felt discouraged, and many of them abandon farming altogether or even move out of Savai’i. But for some farmers, things turned up differently thanks to their engagement in the cocoa export programme.
Although exporting only 4 tons of beans by the early 2000’s, a tiny fraction from exporting volumes in 60’s, Samoa has managed to maintain its international reputation as a producer of fine cocoa thanks to its distinct flavor, origin, and growing techniques. The Programme partners vowed to reclaim Savai’i cocoa lost fame by working closely together with local growers. However, there were number of challenges along the value chain to be addressed first before the first fully loaded container with cocoa beans under the Programme could depart from Apia port to Wellington.
Over the years, the outflow of people from Savai’i has resulted in the loss of skills and knowledge in the cocoa production. Farmers who stayed behind shifted their focus from their cocoa farms into other crops like taro. Abandoned cocoa farms lost much of its production potential. “Farmers willing to work on their overgrown cocoa farms didn’t know how they can rehabilitate low or even not productive trees and were lacking necessary agricultural inputs. Hence, the Programme has trained farmers in best on-farm production practices emphasizing pruning, which is a very efficient method of how to increase tree productivity,” Keith says.
To further encourage to reach higher production levels, the Programme has continued free distribution of quality planting material, which started as the personal initiative of Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaa’i. The seedlings are planted in free space among other trees on the plantations in contrary to other places where land has to be cleared from all vegetation giving way to cocoa monocultures. Such intercropping system significantly increases the resilience of production enclosing the nutrient and water cycles in the landscape.
The Programme has planned to address a decline in the production by the gradual replacement of old trees which are far behind their peak. The vast majority of trees are forty to fifty years old. “Farmers are very hesitant to cut aging, low productive trees, and replace them with new seedlings.
This can not be just talked about. They need to see a real example – a farm, where tree replacement has been done, talk to the owner and see young trees more productive compare to old ones. This replacement process takes several years to see results, so we are happy that our Programme has been extended until 2023,” Keith smiles with joy.
Further up along the value chain, the Programme has focused on post-harvest activities - drying and fermenting, which are critical steps determining the flavor of the final product. At the farm level, growers were trained in the best drying and fermentation practices. At the higher level, the Programme also supported processing facilities operated by Savai’i Koko to enhance their quality control further. Savai’i Koko buys from the local growers all production meeting at least minimal quality standards. Farmers are welcomed to bring either wet or dried beans. Having a guarantee of sales shapes farmers’ decision making and helps them to plan for the future. On the other hand, this enables Savai'i Koko to maintain not only steady but increasing export volumes to Whittaker’s. “While a few years back beans coming from the smallholder farmers comprised 20% of total Savai’i Koko bean output, currently it is reaching 60%, but I hope one day we can cater for farmers from whole Samoa”, Saleimoa concludes.
The unique partnership among chocolate manufacturer J H Whittaker’ & Sons, bean supplier Savai’i Koko and technical experts from SPS Biosecurity does not have the only sweet end in the form of Samoa single origin chocolate bar. The partnership also attracts the attention of the international cocoa industry towards Savai’i. Still, most importantly, it provides sustainable income to farming communities of western Savai’i and keeps people to guard and protect their environment.
In the second phase of the Programme to be implemented within next three years, the partners plans to use sustainable cocoa farming as a marketing tool to promote agro-tourism in Samoa and leverage upon gained achievements to attract more women and unemployed youths by offering new and viable income opportunity.
- Pavel Muron, Offshore Programme Manager