Breathing new life into Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa sector
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
Making chocolate in the Caribbean – it sounds like a dream. But Trinidad and Tobago’s once-mighty cocoa industry faces many challenges. Annual production has plummeted from 30,000 tons of beans a century ago to just 500 tons in recent decades.
Now, a new generation of cocoa entrepreneurs is emerging with ambitions to reclaim the twin-island state’s place at the top table of global confectionery. And intellectual property (IP) is a key part of their strategy.
A leading example is Ashley Parasram (below), founder and CEO of the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC). His ambitions go far beyond running a successful commercial enterprise: his eyes are firmly set on developing a national cocoa ecosystem built around quality production standards that is both profitable and sustainable. A Trinidadian by birth, with a background in sustainable development, Mr. Parasram has the drive and experience to help breathe new life into the country’s cocoa sector.
“I started looking into the cocoa sector in Trinidad and Tobago and got really hooked by it. I was intrigued by this fantastic raw material which the Mayans originally mixed with pepper for a spicy, bitter drink. It has so many different flavor profiles and can be used in so many different ways. How could it be that this wonderful raw material was just dropping from the trees because nobody was picking it? I felt sure that there must be some way of incentivizing people to do something with it? Everything really stems from that challenge,” he says.
Unique genetic diversity
Trinidad and Tobago produces some of the world’s highest-grade cocoa beans. “Trinitario is one of the most flavorsome cocoa you can get,” Mr. Parasram explains. Bred for disease and pest resilience in the 17th century, Trinitario is a combination of Criollo and Forastero varieties. These three varieties are used to produce chocolate. Criollo and Trinitario varieties are generally considered high-grade, “fine” or “flavor” beans, and Forastero is considered a lower-grade “ordinary” or “bulk” bean for mass production. The genetic diversity of Trinitario in Trinidad and Tobago is second to none. “We have over 100 strains of Trinitario in Trinidad and Tobago. The plant’s genetic diversity on the islands is unique,” he observes.
Three years of careful research brought into sharp focus the many issues facing the country’s cocoa sector, not least a complex and highly competitive global market. But Mr. Parasram was undaunted. “There were no convincing reasons why the sector could not work. There were solutions to all the problems that surfaced,” he says. His research did, however, identify the one thing missing from the country’s 450-year history as a cocoa producer: a processing facility.
Trinidad and Tobago’s first cocoa processing facility
Recognizing this gap in the country’s cocoa landscape and the significant potential for growers to add value to their high-quality raw material, in September 2015 Mr. Parasram set up TTFCC and the country’s first cocoa bean processing factory. He hit the ground running. “We went from nothing in January 2015 to having our steel pan chocolate selection on sale at Artisan du Chocolat in London in October and a visit to that shop by Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister in December the same year.”
Eager to demonstrate the huge potential of Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa, TTFCC continues to pursue new marketing opportunities with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, hotel chains like Hilton Hotels & Resorts and luxury department stores like Harrods of London. The company is set to launch its first co-branded single-estate chocolate selection at Harrods in London this autumn. “Going from nothing to being part of the Harrods selection shows what the potential is and incentivizes people to take a look, but of course underneath that you have to sustain an economic model and identify potential market opportunities. We are still working that out.”
A partnership approach
Recognizing the importance of securing the buy-in of government partners, TTFCC was set up as a public-private partnership. Establishing and maintaining a partnership with the government gives the venture much-needed continuity and helps ensure the delivery of key outcomes. “Signing an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture – we use their land and share our processing facilities with local growers – helps ensure that things don’t grind to a halt because of any change in government,” Mr. Parasram explains.
The company is also riding on a wave of government interest in diversifying the national economy. “Right now, with falling revenues from oil and gas, the government is committed to diversifying the economy and to making efficiency gains, so they are taking our work quite seriously,” he notes.
TTFCC produces a range of products under its own brand – cocoa nibs, cocoa mass and couverture (a restaurant-grade chocolate), and chocolate bars for retail, but also works with other estates to develop their product range and brand. The factory can process up to 100 metric tons of cocoa per year at full capacity. “We are not a private company that just produces our own line. We actually give farmers the opportunity to bring their beans and walk away with chocolate. The whole idea of this operation is to add value to the raw material, to improve quality and raise brand awareness,” he says.
A challenging marketplace
But like chocolate, TTFCC’s journey is proving bittersweet. Despite the sector’s huge potential, differences in the price of lower-grade “bulk” African cocoa beans, which sell at around USD 1,500 per ton, and higher-grade “fine” cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago, which sells at around USD 5,000 per ton, makes it much harder for the country’s producers to compete. “A lot of larger companies buy high-grade cocoa and blend it with cheaper cocoa to get a specific flavor profile,” Mr. Parasram explains. “That means the job of selling chocolate is four times harder for someone setting up a value added process in Trinidad and Tobago.”
This challenge is further compounded by a complex global cocoa market featuring big confectionery companies with a tight grip on trade, on the one hand, and a plethora of small-scale chocolatiers who risk flooding the market, on the other. “We have created a processing facility to give farmers access to the global market, which is far more complex than we anticipated. That is a real challenge".
In such a fiercely competitive global arena, TTFCC has little choice but to focus on the luxury market. “We can’t compete with the bulk producers so we have got to target high-end, niche markets,” Mr. Parasram says.
But the even bigger prize is agro-tourism, working with cocoa estates to offer chocolate lovers a unique experience. “People are always looking for unique experiences and there is real opportunity here to create a buzz around this amazing raw material,” he says. “In fact, we are not just selling chocolate – we are selling Trinidad and Tobago and the experiences and knowledge of the growers.”
Ultimately, the aim is to turn Trinidad and Tobago into the world’s premier chocolate destination. “Twenty years from now, we want people to associate chocolate with Trinidad and Tobago much like they associate whisky with Scotland and Champagne with France.” The beauty of agro-tourism, he notes, is that it pays off in more ways than one. “You are not just talking about the revenue from the raw material, you are also talking about the spin-off benefits from having tourist pounds spent. This is a key to building the sector’s long-term financial sustainability.”
Beyond its core commercial operations, TTFCC is helping to drive improvements in cocoa production nationwide. In October 2016, it joined ranks with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Cocoa Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Cocoa Research Center of the University of the West Indies to launch a project called Improving Marketing and Production of Artisanal Cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago (IMPACTT). A three-year program, IMPACTT is designed to promote jobs and rural livelihoods by helping cocoa growers improve yields and bean quality and ensure they have access to domestic and international value-added markets. “Essentially, IMPACTT focuses on the development of standards for quality management from farm to table,”Mr. Parasram explains. “It is also focusing on the development of certification and traceability systems along with a range of marketing tools to help growers get the best price for their beans in international markets and to generate much-needed foreign exchange to offset the impact of falling oil prices.”
Sustainability is the project’s overriding objective. “We are keen to make cocoa attractive to farmers, improve livelihoods, and in particular bring more women into both cocoa farming and value-added cocoa processing. That is why education, training and capacity building are so important,” he says. It takes five years for a cocoa plant to mature and bear fruit, so IMPACTT is also encouraging growers to cultivate multiple crops. “You need cash crops. You can’t have growers dependent on a single crop that requires a lot of processing,” he explains.
Opportunities also exist in developing flavorings for chocolate – think cinnamon, honey, mango, tonka bean, vanilla. “There are so many amazing flavors that we could grow here but we just don’t have the capacity to convert them into the required form, so we end up ordering them from France. But with a little investment there is huge potential.”
What role for intellectual property?
In the short term, the overriding goal is to find practical business models that generate concrete outputs that can be protected by IP rights. “We need to identify and develop practical models and realistic deliverables, and then devise systems where IP supports and protects those deliverables. That way, we avoid regulating where it is not really needed.” But part of that process involves building brand awareness among cocoa growers. They already have a good basis for building their brands. “All the products TTFCC and our partners produce feature the Trinitario bean, are high quality and traceable to a single estate. These are unique attributes around which to build our brands.”
Using IP rights to support the development of reputable global cocoa/chocolate brands can also enhance the competitive profile of Trinidad and Tobago as a whole in international markets.
To ensure that growers have a supportive regulatory environment in which to protect and enhance the value of their brands, TTFCC is working with the national IP office, WIPO and other partners on a range of issues, including in relation to traceability and provenance. “We still have a lot of thinking to do to work out the criteria by which people can claim that something contains Trinitario and is from Trinidad and Tobago. In the world of chocolate there are many misleading claims about provenance. When you create a niche brand that is known for quality, origin and flavor, you are going to have a lot of people claiming it’s Trinitario from Trinidad and Tobago. So issues of traceability, branding and intellectual property are going to become increasingly important. It’s really important that we get this right.”
Going forward, TTFCC is planning to work with the 80 cocoa estates under the IMPACTT project to establish common production standards and a collective or certification mark that guarantees provenance and quality. Using IP rights in this way is a useful strategic response to issues of cocoa blending and origin. It further helps to reinforce the origin-linked value of Trinitario cocoa and boost growers’ incomes.
Reviving Trinidad and Tobago’s ailing cocoa sector, and safeguarding the know-how accumulated by growers over generations, presents many tough challenges. The process requires the backing of investors and sustained buy-in from government, academia, growers and consumers. But success also hinges on broad recognition of the role that the intellectual property system can play in safeguarding the quality and integrity of the country’s high-grade cocoa products.
Only time will tell if TTFCC and its partners succeed in making Trinidad and Tobago the world’s premier mouth-watering chocolate destination.
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