You are here

Breathing new life into T&T’s cocoa sector

Published: 
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Ashley Parasram says TTFCC hopes to “give farmers the opportunity to bring their beans and walk away with chocolate”. PICTURES COURTESY TTFCC

Making chocolate in the Caribbean – it sounds like a dream. But Trinidad and Tobago’s once-mighty cocoa industry faces many challenges. Annual production has plummeted from 30,000 tonnes of beans a century ago to just 500 tonnes in recent decades.

Now, a new generation of cocoa entrepreneurs is emerging with ambitions to reclaim the twin-island state’s place at the top table of global confectionery. And intellectual property (IP) is a key part of their strategy.

A leading example is Ashley Parasram, founder and CEO of the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC). His ambitions go far beyond running a successful commercial enterprise: his eyes are firmly set on developing a national cocoa ecosystem built around quality production standards that is both profitable and sustainable. A Trinidadian by birth, with a background in sustainable development, Parasram has the drive and experience to help breathe new life into the country’s cocoa sector.

“I started looking into the cocoa sector in Trinidad and Tobago and got really hooked by it. I was intrigued by this fantastic raw material which the Mayans originally mixed with pepper for a spicy, bitter drink. It has so many different flavour profiles and can be used in so many different ways. How could it be that this wonderful raw material was just dropping from the trees because nobody was picking it? I felt sure that there must be some way of incentivising people to do something with it? Everything really stems from that challenge,” he says.

Unique genetic diversity

T&T produces some of the world’s highest-grade cocoa beans. “Trinitario is one of the most flavoursome cocoa you can get,” Parasram explains. Bred for disease and pest resilience in the 17th century, Trinitario is a combination of Criollo and Forastero varieties. These three varieties are used to produce chocolate. Criollo and Trinitario varieties are generally considered high-grade, “fine” or “flavour” beans, and Forastero is considered a lower-grade “ordinary” or “bulk” bean for mass production. The genetic diversity of Trinitario in T&T is second to none. “We have over 100 strains of Trinitario in T&T. The plant’s genetic diversity on the islands is unique,” he observes.

Three years of careful research brought into sharp focus the many issues facing the country’s cocoa sector, not least a complex and highly competitive global market. But Parasram was undaunted. “There were no convincing reasons why the sector could not work. There were solutions to all the problems that surfaced,” he says. His research did, however, identify the one thing missing from the country’s 450-year history as a cocoa producer: a processing facility.

Trinidad and Tobago’s first cocoa processing facility

Recognising this gap in the country’s cocoa landscape and the significant potential for growers to add value to their high-quality raw material, in September 2015, Parasram set up TTFCC and the country’s first cocoa bean processing factory. He hit the ground running. “We went from nothing in January 2015 to having our steel pan chocolate selection on sale at Artisan du Chocolat in London in October and a visit to that shop by T&T’s Prime Minister in December the same year.”

Eager to demonstrate the huge potential of Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa, TTFCC continues to pursue new marketing opportunities with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, hotel chains like Hiltonne Hotels & Resorts and luxury department stores like Harrods of London. The company is set to launch its first co-branded single-estate chocolate selection at Harrods in London this autumn. “Going from nothing to being part of the Harrods selection shows what the potential is and incentivises people to take a look, but of course underneath that you have to sustain an economic model and identify potential market opportunities.We are still working that out.”

A partnership approach

Understanding the importance of securing the buy-in of government partners, TTFCC was set up as a public-private partnership. Establishing and maintaining a partnership with the government gives the venture much-needed continuity and helps ensure the delivery of key outcomes. “Signing an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture – we use their land and share our processing facilities with local growers – helps ensure that things don’t grind to a halt because of any change in government,” Parasram explains.

The company is also riding on a wave of government interest in diversifying the national economy. “Right now, with falling revenues from oil and gas, the government is committed to diversifying the economy and to making efficiency gains, so they are taking our work quite seriously,” he notes.

TTFCC produces a range of products under its own brand – cocoa nibs, cocoa mass and couverture (a restaurant-grade chocolate), and chocolate bars for retail, but also works with other estates to develop their product range and brand. The factory can process up to 100 metric tonnes of cocoa per year at full capacity. “We are not a private company that just produces our own line. We actually give farmers the opportunity to bring their beans and walk away with chocolate. The whole idea of this operation is to add value to the raw material, to improve quality and raise brand awareness,” he says.

A challenging marketplace

But like chocolate, TTFCC’s journey is proving bittersweet. Despite the sector’s huge potential, differences in the price of lower-grade “bulk” African cocoa beans, which sell at around US$1,500 per tonne, and higher-grade “fine” cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago, which sells at around US$5,000 per tonne, makes it much harder for the country’s producers to compete. “A lot of larger companies buy high-grade cocoa and blend it with cheaper cocoa to get a specific flavour profile,” Parasram explains. “That means the job of selling chocolate is four times harder for someone setting up a value added process in T&T.”

This challenge is further compounded by a complex global cocoa market featuring big confectionery companies with a tight grip on trade, on the one hand, and a plethora of small-scale chocolatiers who risk flooding the market, on the other. “We have created a processing facility to give farmers access to the global market, which is far more complex than we anticipated. That is a real challenge”.

In such a fiercely competitive global arena, TTFCC has little choice but to focus on the luxury market. “We can’t compete with the bulk producers so we have got to target high-end, niche markets,” Parasram says.

But the even bigger prize is agro-tourism, working with cocoa estates to offer chocolate lovers a unique experience. “People are always looking for unique experiences and there is real opportunity here to create a buzz around this amazing raw material,” he says. “In fact, we are not just selling chocolate – we are selling T&T and the experiences and knowledge of the growers.”

Ultimately, the aim is to turn Trinidad and Tobago into the world’s premier chocolate destination. “Twenty years from now, we want people to associate chocolate with T&T much like they associate whisky with Scotland and Champagne with France.” The beauty of agro-tourism, he notes, is that it pays off in more ways than one. “You are not just talking about the revenue from the raw material, you are also talking about the spin-off benefits from having tourist pounds spent. This is a key to building the sector’s long-term financial sustainability.”

CONCLUDES TOMORROW

• This article appears courtesy of WIPO and was first published in the October edition of WIPO Magazine.
Continues on Page B8T&T’s resurgent cocoa industry has been getting notice across the world, especially with companies like the Trinidad and Tobago Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC) making major inroads into European markets. TTFCC was last week bestowed with the first ever award for innovation by the TTMA and this week launched their chocolates at the prestigious Harrods’ in London. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) highlighted the work of the local chocolate company.