Chocolate is no doubt one of the world’s favourite food, but growing cocoa is no simple task.
In Samoa, Saena Tialino Penaia, a smallholder cocoa farmer and President of the Samoa Farmers Association, tells his story to the business team of how he grew his cocoa plantation on his 50-acre land in Lafi.
The 73-year-old from Malie and Tuana'i has been growing cocoa since 1988. According to him, in the beginning he was mainly focused on increasing the volume of cocoa beans production.
Saena said at the time, the lack of proper equipment to help speed and maintain a consistent supply of beans for his markets was a challenge.
However, despite the time and energy consumed while employing the traditional methods of ma’a and tanoa to produce cocoa beans, Saena knows the benefits of hard work and dedication.
“Previously at the very beginning, I mostly supply the local market. The price of the local market is really high it’s $20 tala per kilo of dried beans. I supply to the street vendors, sometimes I would get $500 a week from selling the cocoa beans,” he said.
“They demand a lot and my reply to them is that I cannot supply their demand because the volume of production here in Samoa is really small, but I can supply them only when I am able to produce a lot.
“The reason I prefer to supply the local market is because when you export overseas, the freight is really high, that’s the biggest problem the exporters are facing at the moment.”
Thanks to the China-Samoa Agricultural Project, Saena was able to receive machineries and now not only continues producing beans, but also Koko Samoa (cocoa paste).
“The Chinese team helped me around the end of last year during their phase II of the agriculture project and this year, they provided me with roasting and grounding machineries.
“Before they provided me with the machineries, it took me about a week to produce no more than 50 cocoa cups.
“The assistance really saved time and now I produce about 100 cocoa cups. The difference is one is known to us as Koko Samoa and the other is dried beans. The production only stops when there are dried beans, but now I am able to turn cocoa beans into cocoa paste.”
According to Saena, people who export cocoa beans overseas sometimes rely on him to fill the container and also source their dried beans for export.
“Now I still sell dried beans for $20 tala per kilo and for Koko Samoa $10 tala a cup,” he said.
Saena was once involved in public accountant firms, government departments, a lecturer at Samoa College and a financial registrar at the National University of Samoa, but in 2000 he decided to become a full commercial cocoa farmer.
You may wonder why he didn’t continue making the tala from inside his air conditioned office, it’s because he knows there’s more value in the land.
“I went into farming because my father was a big cocoa farmer and my schooling was supported from money made from these cocoa.
“So I decided that even though I was doing a white collar job, at the back of my mind, I had the intention of going back to the farm because I know there is a great potential, especially in terms of consumption. The more you plant the more variety you choose from to eat.”
Investment and challenges
“At the beginning, the only money I spent was out of my pocket, until now I did not make any loans. We all understand that Rome was not built in one day, so at the very beginning I spent more than $50,000 because those were the hard days.
“I still spend money over the years, like for instance I was budgeting to build two houses for cutting of the pods and fermentation, but those two projects were not implemented because I spent the money I saved for that project for my recovery post-Gita.
“As we all know, cocoa needs a lot of shade so Cyclone Gita uprooted all the big trees that provided shade and caused it to fall on the cocoa trees. I face a lot of difficulties with cyclones since 1988.”
Apart from spending a lot on rebuilding after cyclones, Saena also faces labour shortage.
“The biggest problem I face is human resources, there’s a scarcity, so if there are no labourers then it’s just a waste of time to engage in other forms of agriculture.
“We have got to concentrate in one area and my area is the production of cocoa. If you grow cocoa, yams, taro, and bananas and you have a lot to choose from. My farm is a mixed farm. I sell my coconuts and taro, which is also called a palagi taro because they are needed for making taro chips.”
The father of three explained: “At the moment, the sale of Koko Samoa is far too slow because there's a lot of cocoa around, but once the cocoa season is about to end, then my sale increases. So for my Koko Samoa, usually people book the number of cups they are willing to take over to Australia or New Zealand.
“I know there’s a great demand for Koko Samoa not only in Australia but also here in Samoa and New Zealand.”
Cocoa farming process
Saena explained the only lengthy process of making Koko Samoa is skinning the roasted beans.
He plants three types of cocoa trees: criollo, white bean and trinitario, which is a mixture of white and pink beans.
“I make my own cocoa nursery. For one acre, there are more than 600 cocoa plants.
“It takes three months to nurse cocoa before transplanting, so from the nursery to planting is about six months. The cocoa tree takes 12 months to branch out and three months for these branches to be strong and bear fruits, so it takes about 18 months to bear fruits.
“When I moved to where I live now, there were cocoa trees there already, so I picked the pods from there and nursed them and then transplanted them.”
Saena has this to say to all cocoa farmers in Samoa.
“You need to start replanting and understand that there’s a great demand of cocoa from overseas. The advice for those who have cocoa trees is for them to clean them because then they will start bearing fruits so that the volume of production of cocoa increases.”
On Samoa’s agriculture sector, he said: “Verbally, agriculture is one revenue generator for Samoa’s economy because when you look at the Government budget, no incentive has been provided for the farmers to improve their production and encourage them to work hard to export their produce.
Cocoa Excellence Award - Paris.
“The award means a lot to me because it shows that I am producing quality cocoa.
"And since I got that award, my international markets overseas have increased, two from New Zealand, two from Australia and one from Japan.”