Have you ever dreamed of a place that offers handcrafted, high quality chocolates produced locally and using Trinitario Cocoa sourced from estates around TT? Even if you haven't, Ashley Parsaram certainly has, and he's made your (secret) wish come true with the official opening of The Chocolate Box at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, St Ann's.
But this is not Parasram's only major accomplishment when it comes to cocoa. Chocolates made by his company, TT Fine Cocoa Company, are sold in the world-famous Harrods department store in London. Parasram boasted this was the first time in 184 years that Harrods had co-branded with another company. And British High Commissioner Tim Stew, hailed this feat.
Speaking at the opening Chocolate Box, Stew said, "I have known Ashley and his energy and infectious enthusiasm, so I am not surprised to see the Chocolate Box." Since his time in TT, Stew said, he always felt the UK should support TT's cocoa industry, and promised to let the people of the UK know where it came from. "I'm glad Harrods is an active partner in all of this." The Westminster Culinary School in London was also involved, Stew added, by way of sending staff to train local chocolatiers for the export market.
Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon said TT exported $96 million worth of cocoa in 2017. The global chocolate industry was worth US$103 billion that year, and was set to grow to US$162 billion by 2024, the minister said.
Of the five elements in the chocolate value chain – farming, transport and trade, processing, manufacturing and retail – she said the highest value-added was in the last two stages, manufacturing (35 per cent of total value-added) and retail (42 per cent).
"Today's formal opening of this facility reflects a strategic move down the chocolate value chain, which will reap even greater value from the industry. This movement, from bean to bar, focuses on global exports, and is what is envisioned for our local industry," she said.
Such a venture will contribute to the country's GDP, create jobs and earn foreign exchange, Gopee-Scoon said, and was all part of broader efforts to revitalise and expand both the cocoa and chocolate industries in TT.
"Today's opening also highlights the work undertaken by the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture to grow downstream agro-processing in our country."
Innovation and technology can add value along each stage of chocolate production from bean to bar in growing this very important sector in TT.
"Our Trinitario cocoa remains one of the world's premier grade cocoa beans, and is highly regarded for its superior flavour profile. It is among the finest globally," she affirmed.
Prof Path Umaharan, director of the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, said he felt personally upset that TT's cocoa industry had been languishing despite the fine reputation of local cocoa. Congratulating Parasram, Umaharan said, "I admire people like Ashley who take the risk, and the Government and university will be with him along the way."
Winston Rudder, chairman of the Cocoa Development Company and Agricultural Development Bank, said TT cocoa had just retained its high status at a recent meeting of the International Cocoa Organisation in Nigeria. TT produced cocoa of high quality but in small amounts, he noted, as he asked, "How can we ramp up production, maintaining quality?"
Dr Darin Sukha of the Cocoa Research Centre recalled Parasram's struggles to acquire machinery from Brazil and applauded his dedication and tenacity. "TT receives one of the highest prices for its cocoa beans in the world. We have to make good on that recognition."
The Chocolate Box was TT's first facility for dark chocolate, he said. "This represents a milestone, to try to propel TT's cocoa economy forward."
Parasram interspersed his remarks after each speaker. He said he hoped to use the Hilton Hotel's network to sell his chocolate in the region. He thanked the trade ministry and others who had helped, including InvestTT and ExportTT. He said, "I hope this will encourage others to go into the cocoa industry."