Cocoa Research Centre: Leads the way among world's genebanks

At the International Cocoa Genebank, there are over 2,000 specimens from around the world.
At the International Cocoa Genebank, there are over 2,000 specimens from around the world.

The Cocoa Research Centre has been around since 1930, as part of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, the precursor to the modern-day University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus. The centre has three components: the head office in the Frank Stockdale building, UWI; the International Cocoa Genebank in Centeno and the newest addition, the Innovation Centre in Mt Hope.

It also advises some of the biggest chocolate companies in the world, including Mondelez International, owners of Cadbury and Oreo; M&Ms and Snickers creator Mars; and Swiss giants Nestlé and Lindt & Sprungli.

When one thinks about the International Cocoa Genebank it sounds like it should be a regular science lab, with white walls, no windows and stainless steel equipment with plants under microscopes being analysed. Instead, it’s cleverly disguised as a vast yet meticulously tended orchard of cocoa specimens from all over the world, hidden in a valley in Centeno, at the foot of the northern range.

The establishment of the genebank collection began in 1982 by consolidating earlier collections of cacao from several sites in Trinidad. It is approximately 100 acres – with over 2,000 specimens from around the world with 16 plants each. It is the largest cocoa genebank in the world. Costa Rica coming second with approximately 1,000 species.

During the dry season they have an irrigation system which feeds off of the Caroni River and two ponds they created, as well authorisation from the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA). Threats to the genebank include squirrels, parrots and people slashing and burning crops to hunt in the genebank. During the rainy season, flooding is another great threat that often destroys many cocoa trees.

To be sure, there are experiments taking place, and the centre is home to the world’s biggest cocoa genebank, as well as cutting edge research for the cocoa industry, including cures for diseases like witch’s broom and frosty pod, to innovative ways to increase harvests and production.

Now, however, the centre is looking inwards, with a focus on developing the TT cocoa industry, through directly assisting farmers with information on farming techniques to give higher yields and intensive courses on chocolate making to encourage budding local chocolatiers.

“Our industry is suffering because of the high cost of production,” said Prof Pathmanathan Umaharan, head of the Cocoa Research Centre and professor in genetics.

Cocoa farming is labour intensive. Cocoa pods cannot be harvested mechanically. The cocoa pod grows out of a flower cushion. If the cushion is destroyed then the pod can never grow back in that spot. If a tree has 100 cushions and ten are destroyed every year, then within ten years the cocoa tree can no longer bear fruit. So, harvesting of the pods must be done manually.

And if cocoa fields are not properly managed by removing the undergrowth, caring for diseases and doing necessary pruning then the harvest will not be bountiful.

Farmers often have difficulty finding adequate labour for their fields, either because people don’t want to work in agriculture because the work is physical and wages not as high as compared to other sectors, or because young people can’t see the viability of the industry while the average age of cocoa farmers is increasing.

The centre wants farmers to know that cocoa can be lucrative.

Smarter farming, better harvests

First up, to combat labour issues, several aspects of maintenance, including certain parts of harvesting, pruning, disease management, weed control and fertilisers can be mechanised. Umaharan, who is from Sri Lanka, says if cocoa farmers plant their crops in an orchard system where trees are planted in a row, then they can build tracks called inter-row cultivators and drive between the plants for harvesting, although this cannot be done for the cocoa fields on the hills.

A cable system where harvested cocoa pods are placed in a basket and taken to a central point is also an option.

Threats to the specimens in the International Cocoa Genebank include squirrels and parrots.

He does acknowledge though, that because of the investment needed for mechanisation, for all this to work, farmers need to be profitable. And to be profitable, they have to increase productivity.

"There is no reason we can’t. If we increase productivity on a farm by 20 times and the price by two times, immediately the farm becomes profitable and if the farm becomes profitable then more and more people would invest in the cocoa. Without production, you cannot invest in the industry."

There are foreign companies coming to the Caribbean and investing in cocoa, he said, from places like Australia, the UK and Germany, but unless they see transformation, they won’t invest here.

“TT gets the highest price for cocoa in the world, but we are not doing anything in our industry," he said.

Ninety-five per cent of chocolate production in the world is made from forestero beans. The finest-flavoured cocoa species, criollo, has such a low production, it is not only incredibly expensive, but not a reliable source of beans for mass chocolate production.

Trinitario beans, which originated in Trinidad, makes up the other five per cent and sell at a premium rate. Cocoa beans sell on the international commodities markets for about US$2,500 per tonne, but trinitario beans from TT farmers fetch more than twice that.

Umaharan and his team want to help build a farming sector that is profitable in its own right, increase production from 200 kg to 4,000 kg per hectare, and help farmers market their cocoa, getting quality up to the standard where TT beans can fetch prices of US$10,000 per tonne.

In this file photo, Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan, head of The UWI St Augustine’s Cocoa Research Centre (CRC) shakes hands with Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat.

“The best farmers produce 4,000 kg per hectare. Our farmers are producing 200 kg per hectare. We want to support farmers to become more profitable. Their profitability can increase. Fifty per cent of production is good crop and the other fifty is management.”

Smaller farms with five or six acres were able to survive with mixed crops, but in the last ten years, Umaharan said, there has been a 50 per cent drop out of those small farms as older generations leave.

"We had approximately 2,000 of those farms but we now have 1,000. The older generation is retiring and the younger generation does not know how to do it and they do not see any value in profitability."

Farmers then have to attract investors to gain access to funding and financing to purchase the necessary equipment.

"Investment means partnership. In Trinidad, farmers may not have the (financial) resources, but they may have the land and the knowledge. If you could combine the investment you could create the resources."

To deal with labour shortages, Umaharan suggests trained labour gangs, coordinated by the Cocoa Development Company (CDCTT), who can offer their services to farmers.

Embrace free market, invite investment

The CDCTT is the successor to the Cocoa and Coffee Board, which, through the Cocoa and Coffee Act 1961, made it the owner of every bean produced in TT.

"It was a government board and you know what happens to government boards, they are inefficient."

The board then hired middle-men, brokers who would sell the cocoa, and for every US$5,000 per tonne they sold, farmers would get about US$2,000. The Cocoa and Coffee Board was dissolved in 2015 to make way for the CDCTT, whose mandate is no longer agent/bean owner, but rather, technical adviser. Farmers then, had to market their beans on their own and did not know how to do that.

"Farmers could directly sell to anyone in the world instead of going through brokers. But sometimes independence is a difficult thing. When people have been in bondage, selling to brokers, farmers did not know how to do anything, so what happened is in the few years, although it was liberalised, there was no board and so no one to buy and sell," Umaharan said.

The buying agents, however, were able to organise themselves to fill the gap and started buying and exporting.

Farmers used to sell cocoa at US$18 per kilo to the Cocoa and Coffee Board but because of privatisation, they now get US$26 to US$35 per kilo, with some farmers, like the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers’ Co-operative getting US$7,000 per tonne on their own.

“They are getting paid more. Lots of farmers are selling on their own… Now that it is open economics, entrepreneurship can help. A lot of people are interested in investing in Trinidad. When it was government owned no one was interested in investing."

Trinidad exports mostly to Europe and Japan, with the bulk of beans going to Europe. Most of it brokers would buy it and distribute it to other countries.

Umaharan said while TT is known for its high-quality beans, investors are not interested because there is not enough land to invest in and there are insufficient support systems to attract investors.

The country even lost an investor to Nicaragua because they were attracted by 1,000 acres of land. St Vincent also attracted an investor who was interested in 500 acres of cocoa fields.

"We have to look at why investors are going to Nicaragua, Peru and Brazil to invest. Trinidad is well known for better quality cocoa but no one is coming here because of the investment environment in Trinidad. Some of these investors want information but the systems aren't available. (Data) about land, how to register a business… all of those things have to be streamlined to get investments.”

The body responsible for investment is InvestTT. But Umaharan says they have any information on the cocoa farms so they have to work with CDCTT to see which farmers are prepared to go into partnerships, lease the land or sell the land and of course, where the lands are.

There are 90,000 hectares of land used for cocoa in TT but some of the fields are abandoned and there are no records on who owns the abandoned land.

Maximising local content in the value chain

Farming alone cannot sustain the cocoa industry, so there must be diversification within by farmers and other stakeholders to produce chocolate along the value chain.

The Cocoa Research Unit is doing its part with a training programme for entrepreneurs – including farmers – who want to learn to make chocolate professionally. Started in 2011, this five-day course costs $5,000 but takes participants on a journey through the theoretical and practical aspects of chocolate making.

For the theory section, the students are taught quality along the cocoa value chain, where the beans came from, the importance of roasting in chocolate making, food safety concepts and business models. For the practical aspect, they learn quality assessment of beans, bean sorting, selection and weighing, breaking, de-shelling and sorting of nibs, formulation calculations, tempering chocolate and wrapping chocolate bars.

To date the research centre has trained more than 250 people in the introduction to chocolate course, 60 of whom started their own companies. Brands such as Cocobel and Gina’s Chocolate have passed through the centre’s class.

To showcase these chocolatiers, the centre has an expo for World Cocoa and Chocolate Day in September.

This year the event, usually in UWI, will be at Hyatt Regency, Port of Spain. Umaharan intends to invite international bloggers and media practitioners to expose local brands internationally.

But, Umaharan notes, these chocolatiers must also start finding ways to export their chocolate on their own or they will drown in an oversaturated TT market. These new companies need close monitoring because, to make it on the international scene, they have to reduce inconsistencies.

"A lot of the early companies need hand-holding so they can get their act together. Once they manage that, they can fly.” Where they falter, he says, is technology.

Training breeds innovation

To improve the quality of cocoa production, the centre is creating an International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre which will comprise a chocolate factory, cocoa orchard and training programmes for all people in the chocolate industry.

The innovation centre is being set up in Mt Hope on 100 acres of farmland. Eighty-five per cent of the funding comes from the EU. The other 15 per cent comes from Government. Lindt & Sprungli is funding the cocoa orchard.

To teach farmers best practices, Umaharan wants to create apprenticeship programmes for both experienced farmers and novices on the innovation centre's cocoa farm. The seasoned farmers would get a month of training on the cocoa farm while agriculture students who are interested in cocoa farming will work on the farm for three months.

"That's a hands-on programme, where they work on the farm, train on the technology so when they go out there they are confident enough to start their own farms. For farmers who are steeped in it one month is sufficient," he said.

Fifty per cent of the orchard is already planted. He said the dry season was harsh, and they were struggling with plants, to set up an irrigation system, but they have a state-of-the-art irrigation facility now.

The research centre is documenting the development of the farm. By keeping records of cost of production, they have information to track investment costs and potential profits. They can use that to create a standard business model to share with farmers.

The goal is to open by next year, and training will begin with caring for young plants, setting up an irrigation system and formative pruning of the plants.

They are also hoping to open the chocolate factory by next year. They have the equipment, but need the actual building. Government was supposed to fund the factory for the past three years, but the centre has not yet received funds.

"We asked the Government to support to build the factory; the equipment was funded by the EU. Three years in a row they put the funding in the budget, but they said they want to go to the Caribbean Development Bank. Eighty-five per cent of the funding we got from outside, while the 15 per cent we are asking to get this thing moving (is supposed to be government funding)," he said.

Despite it all, Umaharan’s dream is to revive the cocoa industry and create a 2.0 version of our cocoa genetic material breeding programme, returning Trinidad to its regal place in the cocoa industry. But for now, for all its potential and legendary status as the home of the trinitario, the country’s cocoa industry barely makes a blip in the international market.


"Cocoa Research Centre: Leads the way among world’s genebanks"

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