Winston Rudder, chairman of the Cocoa Development Company said it clearly. TT must get serious about cocoa production if it is to have any impact on the world market, and in doing so it might begin an agricultural diversification that’s eluded this country so far.
TT’s production of cocoa fell from a high of 33,590 metric tons in 1921, the peak of production, to less than 500 tonnes today. Despite its small scale in a global market of more than 4.5 million metric tonnes, TT stakes its claim to the top echelons of product with its flavourful Trinitario genetic strain. There remains a place for fine cocoa in the world market, and not just in the artisinal products produced locally. Major brands buy less flavourful bulk beans and create mass-market products by blending cheaper cocoa with premium beans for taste.
This country was put in the embarrassing position in 2018 of having to respond to the International Cocoa Organisation’s request for evidence that we are still a producer of high-quality cocoa. The market for cocoa is now fiercely competitive and altogether different from the one that was created in the era of the plantation economy. It’s not enough to brag about having a great product, we must demonstrate the reality of that claim through history, geography, genetic markers and consistent, reliable ouput. At least one element of that criteria is the need to prove that TT has an actual cocoa industry.
For many TT citizens, there is no assurance that such a question, casually posed, would be met by an unequivocal affirmative. That uncertainty reaches into government where efforts at leveraging to advantage the considerable private sector work invested in reviving the industry remains spotty and uncertain.
As with all agriculture, the challenges that cocoa farmers face come down to infrastructure, which tends to deteriorate badly on estates far from cities and townships. That’s a stark contrast to the attention that cocoa got from the colonial administration in the 1930’s, which included a Cocoa Research Scheme at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, the ancestor of the Cocoa Research Centre at UWI.
That foresight, maintained in academia for more than 80 years, has resulted in a resource of scientific knowledge and a catalogued genetic diversity of cocoa that’s one of our sustainable treasures.
A similar measured, long-term political perspective on the local cocoa industry is what’s needed to raise our profile in global markets and emphasise TT branded cocoa as the brand to beat for quality and consistency.
But that’s going to demand a consistent, sustained effort to support agriculture in a real world effort at diversification.