The cocoa Barons of Samoa

The cocoa renaissance in Samoa in recent times has had a rough time with environmental and production challenges.

Samoa’s largest cocoa exporter, Va’ai Plantations, watches the industry carefully and with some concerns because they know firsthand the challenges the cocoa industry is experiencing.

One of them is the cocoa growers inability to produce enough supply for their international markets.

While there have been efforts by the Government and their international development partners to provide support, through money incentives and innovative programme initiatives to boost the once thriving cocoa industry of Samoa, sometimes it is best to look back to the Cocoa tycoons of the past to provide the answers in paving the way forward.

Former Cabinet Minister and businessman, Vaai Papu Vaai, remembers the cocoa boom during the time of his father and grandfather, particularly in their district on the western end of Savai’i. 

“My father was called a cocoa Baron and his father before him was one too,” he said. 

“Back then W.S.T.E.C. was a top producer and then our family was second to them. Right throughout the district it was flourishing, there were trading stations with Curruthers, Eveni, Nelson. People used to put their groceries on credit but when the cocoa was weighed and cashed out , families could easily pay off their debt and have a surplus of cash left over.”

“Cocoa was the lifeblood of this district. In 1990 Cyclone Ofa came and killed our cocoa industry, the crops were destroyed but we didn’t give up – we planted our whole farm again.”

Fourth generation cocoa farmer, Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaai is a descendant of the early Vaai cocoa barons with a long family history steeped in cocoa farming, processing and exporting. 

Legacy is important to Tupa’i but perhaps more importantly, continuation is crucial to prevent the traditional knowledge of cocoa farming from declining to non –existent in our country.

 “My grandfather used to have a saying that everyone who knew him remembers well, he used to say ‘there are trucks, cars, and pickups found underneath the vines’ we only need to open or pull out the vines to get them,” Tupa’i said. 

“We can have what we want but we need to work for it, there is a common disinterest in getting your hands dirty these days.

“Coming from a family where we are continuing a legacy that our grandfather and great grandfather started onto our fathers and now onto us,” said Tupa’i. 

“We are from a family of people that grew a lot of cocoa in the beginning and here we still are reaping the fruits of their work.  We want to go back and re-instill that sense of longevity and continuing that legacy. I’m still planting cocoa now and hopefully my sons will harvest it.

“Back in the hay days, my grandfather used to ship three truckloads of workers to the Vaai Cocoa plantation and he would have had 200 workers on the farm. 

“Today between myself and my cousin Kolone - we have twenty workers doing all the work that the 200 had to before.”

With a commercial arrangement between Tupa’i’s Savai’i Koko and New Zealand’s J H Whittaker & Sons in its third year, efforts have been made to support farmers with seedlings and improvements to cocoa farming systems in Savaii to strengthen the supply chain for exporting.

However, the lack of interest in growing cocoa from the youth compounded by a loss of traditional cocoa planting knowledge with every generation is worrisome to Tupa’i. 

The lack of cultural understanding and context by aid donors and international consultants though well meaning, misses the mark when it comes to understanding the family role that underpins farming practices,

 “I do a youth group programme in collaboration with U.N.D.P. to encourage them into farming,” he said. 

“My only criticism about development aid is they try and segregate everybody but Samoa is built on a family unit. But they say you have to boost women, you have to boost the youth. When it comes to farming in Samoa, the whole family is involved so that’s including the kids because everyone has their role which is why our ancestors farms were so prosperous.

“I don’t like the concept of these conditions that they place on development aid because it doesn’t fit our culture – family is the basis of everything, not individuals, especially when you’re dealing with subsistent farming. Why try and separate something that is deeply embedded in our traditions and culture?

“But we do it because we must, so we try and get the families who want to start growing again and we tell bring your young people, register them but keep in mind that you still need the father to encourage the youth to keep going and if the young people end up leaving as is what sometimes happens we have found out – the family will continue it. It’s the reality of the way of life in Samoa. We do what we must because we have to adhere to the conditions of any programme.”

In 2017 the New Zealand government injected $8.5 million into the Samoa cocoa industry with a mandate to build a better industry and better market access but Tupa’i says that help is mostly needed at the primary level.

“With that particular programme there is no direct input into the farmer. Their goal is to build an industry , in my view even though it’s a good long term plan – it does not change or affect what we as an industry need at the moment. What we are needing is supply and the only way to increase supply is to help the bottom level where the farmers are. We’re not going to increase it by making a better industry or better market access it needs to go right down to the primary level.

“Once we increase any sort of supply, the industry will build itself up out of it. The Chamber of commerce is spearheading that programme and their mandate is to build an industry body and then looking at building nurseries , make better plants and better seedlings.”

Tupa’i wants to encourage people to go back into farming which is why he continues with his free seedling program out of the Asau district which has been very successful in supplying 30,000 trees to farmers free of charge.

“I wanted to encourage people to go back into farming; I have to give them something. Everyone wants a hand out, which is a bad mentality – it’s made our people poor. But I had to do something, I built these green houses and started growing cocoa and giving it out for free because I knew, even the 30cents you buy the seedlings at the crops divison in Asau is expensive if you’re a small farmer.”

Tupa’I says that they markets are there again for cocoa producers and exporters and now is the time to take advantage of them before they look elsewhere. 

“My hope is that the government keeps pushing because at the moment I just can’t keep up with the demand from my markets. I have 103 farmers and a lot of them are small farmers and a few big farms, what we are trying to do is encourage them.”

But throughout the rise and fall of Samoa cocoa production levels in the last 100 years, the sons and daughters of the early Vaii plantation tycoons have survived unpredictable world prices, devastating cyclones, ageing trees and failed government attempts to reverse the trends. Tupa’I says that cocoa growing tradition is still strong in Samoa so long as our older generations continue to pass down the knowledge and passion for cocoa farming.

“Someone asked me what my vision is as a cocoa producer, I said to them that my father used to ship cocoa right out of here and that’s what I would like to see happen again for us to be able to ship right out of our harbour here in Asau.

We do what we must and we don’t give up. We are again at harvest time and looking to fill a container for New Zealand and one for Japan. Most people opt for the local market but when the harvest is on there is excess of supply and we want the people to know there is market for their koko.

Savaii Koko from Asau is taking in koko wet beans and dry beans. We collect from anywhere in Samoa that includes Upolu. We want to promote the resurgence of koko for the prosperity of our people”

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