Whittaker’s Samoan Cocoa Export Improvement Program Focuses on Sustainability and Climate Change Mitigation

Author Keith Budd

Senior Consultant
SPS Biosecurity Ltd.
Samoa Cocoa Export Program. Photo by Keith Budd.

Cocoa is a long-established crop in Samoa and was traditionally the second largest earner of export revenue. Criollo type cocoa was planted on German plantations in Samoa in 1883. The Samoan industry reached a peak in 1962 exceeding 5,300 metric tons.  The 1993 International Cocoa Agreement recognizes 17 countries, including Samoa, as producers of fine flavor cocoa. It has been suggested that our primary plantation and the source of seed and budwood for our nursery constitutes the last large stand of original Trinitarios introduced to the Pacific more than 100 years ago.

Cocoa production has fallen dramatically since the 1960s: 2,700 metric tons in 1970, 1,300 metric tons in 1980, 600 metric tons in 1990, 3.6 metric tons in 2003. Many factors contributed to declining production levels, including an inefficient Marketing Board, Cyclones Ofa and Val, the scrapping of government cocoa schemes, a decline in world prices, a boom in taro crops, the break up of government estates, aging trees, and incorrect processing and poor storage.

Attempts were made to reverse the trend over the last 30 years by the Samoan government and aid organizations. This failed to revive the export market due to a lack of focus on quality, isolation from markets, poor transport linkages, high costs of imported resources, limited economies of scale, and natural disasters. There was also a mix of apathetic government agencies, short-term and fragmented project management and a lack of cultural understanding and context by aid donors and outside consultants.

While most proponents for a revival of Samoa’s cocoa fortunes focus on value adding and channeling resources through government or quasi government agencies, we chose a different approach. We focused on a direct commercial arrangement between a Samoan Cocoa supplier Savai’i Koko and a New Zealand chocolate maker WCF member J.H. Whittaker & Sons. This has resulted in successful cocoa exports.

Initially our project was called “The Whittaker’s Cocoa Improvement Programme”, which began in 2014 following product development of the Single Origin Samoan Cacao Chocolate in 2013.

Working as a New Zealand horticultural consultant for SPS Biosecurity Ltd. and having expertise in marketing and production horticulture, I was contracted to re-establish the relationship between Whittaker’s and the Va’ai family and develop a quality source of cocoa beans. The Va’ai family exported Cocoa beans in the 1960s to J.H. Whittaker and Sons.

The focus was on optimizing quality and the rehabilitation of the existing cocoa plantation in Vaisala in the Western part of Savai’i. Improvements were introduced to on-farm practices including pruning and growing seedlings. Dramatic post-harvest improvements were made by standardizing the fermentation practice. Results were immediate with the first export of a full container of cocoa bean in over a decade being achieved in 2015. Since then the volumes have increased exponentially.

Va'ai Family Photo Photo by Keith Budd

In 2016 the program was expanded with the support of the New Zealand government “Partnership Programme”. This program is known as Samoan Cocoa Export Improvement Programme (SCEIP). There has been close communication with the Samoan government, the Samoan Chamber of Commerce, and the New Zealand High Commission. SCEIP aims to address the export cocoa supply constraints through improvements to cocoa farming systems, the rehabilitation of overgrown plantations and new increase plantings. The program primarily benefits a farmer group from the district of Itu Asau, made up of 14 villages in the Western region of Savai’i, Samoa.

Initially a seedling nursery was established, supplemented by seedlings from the government nurseries. These first seedlings were used to replace dead or aged trees in the plantation. In 2017 the nursery program was expanded with the establishment of a modern nursery facility capable of producing 30,000 seedlings a year.

Our focus is now on sustainability and climate change mitigation for our cocoa farms. All farms are organic in practice with a number fully registered as organic under IFOAM. Tree cover is maintained in the re-establishment of cocoa farms. The retention of all mature tree crops on our farms increases productivity and provides broad biodiversity, continuing to produce high quality export cocoa beans from a proud tradition of Samoan cocoa farmers.