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Good Honest Samoan Cocoa: Reconnecting with our Pacific family

What happens when a fourth-generation chocolate maker and a fourth-generation cocoa producer join forces? As it turns out – quite a lot!

In 2014, Matt Whittaker travelled to Western Savai'i to meet with Tuipai Saleimoa Va'ai (Sale), of Savai’i Koko. He knew the Trinitario cocoa beans his family grew would make the most delicious chocolate.  But as he spent more time there, he realised there might be more Whittaker’s could do than just source cocoa. There was also an opportunity to help revitalise the Va'ai family business and the Samoan chocolate industry.

Since then the Va'ai and Whittaker’s families have worked together to make a real, positive difference to cocoa suppliers across Samoa.

As an unexpected bonus, this partnership also helped us Whittaker's reconnect with our own history. Our founder, James Henry Whittaker used to buy cocoa from Sale’s grandfather!

Reconnecting with history, the Va'ai and Whittaker families.

History of cocoa in Samoa

Cocoa beans were introduced to Samoa in the 1880’s. The humid and warm climate providing the perfect environment to create premium quality cocoa.

Commercial farming reached its peak in the 1960’s but by the early 2000’s it had dwindled to only a handful of cocoa farmers.

This small, passionate group continued to feed the domestic market, but many thousands of hectares of former cocoa plantations were abandoned, left to be reclaimed by nature. During this time, most Samoan cocoa was consumed locally or exported as ‘Koko Samoa’, a popular local hot chocolate drink made from the cocoa bean.

Still Samoa kept its status internationally as a producer of quality cocoa – largely due to its unique flavour, origin and growing techniques. Samoan cocoa farmers often plant other fruits around cocoa trees that help the pods thrive and provide good shade, like banana trees.

With all the elements there to achieve premium cocoa status, the only challenge was to make cocoa growing more attractive to more farmers. 

Revitalizing the Samoan cocoa industry

Following his visit in 2014, Matt Whittaker set up the ‘Whittaker’s Cocoa Improvement Programme’.

This programme allows us to support the local industry in a number of ways:

Supplying better tools to farmers

We supply our local partner Savai’i Koko with key resources like moisture meters, pruning equipment, and fermentation boxes. This allows Savai’i Koko to support other local cocoa farmers, by providing:

  • Centralised processing facilities
  • Best practice training, and
  • Conducting thorough quality checks.

Providing education on sustainable practices

We offer training in sustainable horticultural practices to prevent risk of deforestation or environmental damage. This includes planting shade trees and other fruits to improve the quality of the cocoa which in turn provides farmers with a diversified source of income.

Our Programme also includes an initiative to recycle the cocoa bean sacks and, through its nursey, supplies cocoa tree seedlings to farmers. Over 10,000 seedlings were planted in the first year! 

The results were immediate

Tuipai Saleimoa Va'ai (Sale), Managing Director of Savai’i Koko, says that the partnership has enabled them to do more social impact work and has raised awareness and enthusiasm among farmers now they can earn money from cocoa. Providing a consistent and steady income to farmers benefits rural communities and makes an important contribution to Samoa's economy through export growth.

Sale Vaa’i (left) and Matt Whittaker (right). Four generations in and counting.

Matt has continued to visit regularly and his close relationship with Sale and the Va'ai family has enabled us to develop and grow the impacts of our Programme together.

In 2014, average cocoa yields at the participating farms in Samoa were at 150kg, but as a result of the Programme, improved to 300kg per hectare of dried cocoa bean. Exports doubled from 15 tonnes to 30 tonnes per year and 400 cocoa farmers began applying new growing and post-harvest techniques on their farms.

In 2015, we achieved the first export of a full container of cocoa beans in over a decade. Since then the volumes have continued to increase year-on-year and are expected to grow a further 60% over the next three years with the support of the Programme.

In 2017, The Whittaker’s Cocoa Improvement Programme expanded to include a partnership with New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

Family-owned businesses supporting each other

The Whittaker’s and Va'ai families are both fourth-generation veterans of the chocolate industry – but that’s not all we have in common.

Sale and his family are just as committed as we are to quality, sustainability and improving yields.

Their Trinitario cocoa beans have a distinctive full-flavour, earthy and sweet chocolate, which we use to make our Single Origin Samoan 70% Cacao dark chocolate block (pictured).

What’s more, collaborating with Sale gives us 100% traceability on how our cocoa beans are sourced, ensuring they are harvested ethically and with minimal impact on the environment.

Our relationship with Sale and his family is one we cherish and continue to nurture.