Breaking the Mold: Curating Cacao for a Change
It takes just three hours to fly from Brisbane, Australia to Honiara, Solomon Islands, yet the divide can feel much wider.
Australia’s GDP per capita is more than twenty times higher than the Solomon Islands. Australia has approximately 272 times more land, 37 times more people, and even attracts exponentially more tourists: 9.4 million a year compared to 30,000 who visit the Solomon Islands.
Look closely at some of the island travelers and you will see they are drawn there by something small, yet with the potential to change lives in both countries: premium cacao beans which are key to crafting fine chocolate.
Brian Atkin has seen the uniting power of cacao. He says, “When you’re in places like the Solomons, where 85 percent of the people live a subsistence-based farming lifestyle, they find it so strange when people show up and say, ‘We want to understand more about how the chocolate is made.’ It’s just amazing for farmers to see that impact.”
Brian hoped for that connection when he started a Solomon Islands-based cacao company called Makira Gold more than five years ago. The Brisbane-based technology businessman has a Solomon Islands background. He hoped to support his local community by fostering premium markets for cacao. Eventually, his dream expanded to help more of the Solomon Islands’ 20,000 smallholder cacao farmers.
His idea: improve cacao quality, expand the market, smooth out bumps in the supply chain, and help farmers earn money from their crops to improve lives for their families. It was a solid proposition that was soon about to transform into something even sweeter.
Service Above Self
As Brian told the story of Makira Gold, someone told him he should meet their friend Jessica Pedemont, who happened to be a certified chef in Australia. Jessica has worked in kitchens around the world, specializing in commercial cookery and pastries. Her passion is chocolate—so much so, she founded Australian-based Chocolate Artisan, and her LinkedIn profile lists her title as Cacao Evangelist.
Jessica and Brian quickly discovered they were preaching the same message and so they decided to amplify it. It was the start of South Pacific Cacao, a collaboration to support smallholder farmers and fine food, and Brian says it immediately made sense. He explains, “What we wanted to do together was all about impact and using our skills and passions to create something more than what we could do individually.”
Jessica adds, “Brian does the legwork to get the beans here. It’s my job to take these commodities to the next stage.”
“It’s so much more than a better price.” - Jessica Pedemont
Jessica and Brian say they have three key reasons to believe in Solomon Islands cacao.
The first—critical to someone who creates and sells premium chocolate-- is that the cacao tastes amazing.
Then, proximity—because the Solomon Islands have the closest cacao growing region to Australia, there are fewer food miles in the cost.
Finally, they say their producers get a better price than they would at the bulk market. Makira Gold advertises that it pays cacao farmers between 75% to 200% higher prices than they would get on the bulk commodity market. That helps Solomon Islands smallholder farmers, and it is now expanding to other South Pacific cacao providers and even vanilla bean farmers.
Jessica and Brian are proud of the price and prouder of purpose. Jessica says, “Everyone looks at the market for beans. I look at the longevity of the farmers’ personal health that affects their family and their life and the environment that they’re living in. Brian has been able to create an infrastructure where there’s education about farming and that trumps everything.”
“It was just the thing to make it work” - Brian Atkin
Brian learned about better cacao handling practices by necessity. The high-quality beans he sourced were losing value along the supply chain. Seawater contaminated some cacao beans thrown in heavy bags onto ships. Other beans picked up an unfavorable smoky smell from drying the beans for days over a wood fire fueled by cutting down trees. Still, other beans were infested by cocoa moths or reabsorb moisture in the humid environment to grow molds. Brian thought there must be a better way to protect the cacao, and he found solutions in GrainPro products.
Makira Gold has replaced traditional drying methods with GrainPro solar bubble driers. Harnessing the power of the sun with portable drying systems proves more environmentally friendly, health-friendly, and cost-effective. Once the cacao reaches the correct moisture level, all beans are stored in GrainPro’s green hermetic bags which hold a few dozen kilograms of cacao, or indoor Cocoons which store tons of beans. Either way, the hermetic technology keeps seawater, insects, and smoke contaminants away from the beans during the long shipping process.
Brian Atkin shows smallholder cacao farmers how GrainPro Bags preserve the quality of their high-valued crops.
Brian says these GrainPro products had such a positive impact on the quality that they are now incorporated into each link of the supply chain. He says, “It solves so many problems along the way, it’s almost like magic.” Jessica says she knows she can count on cacao that arrives in Sydney ready to be made into the kind of chocolate free of fumigating chemicals discerning customers want. Jessica says, “They’re a game-changer. You can do things with confidence. You could lose your entire business if beans are unprotected. With GrainPro, I know the bag is ok.”
A statistical agency rates the Solomon Islands as the world’s 27th largest cacao producer. Some of that cacao has gone on to win international awards. Yet for years, many of the Solomons’ smallholder producers never had an opportunity to see what their cacao could become when it left the ports. Brian and Jessica make it a point to bring their South Pacific Cacao creations from Australia back to the farmers, giving them their first taste of a delicacy made possible by their beans. Brian says at that moment, farmers realize “they’re part of the supply chain creating the impact and they get to experience it. That’s just the most wonderful thing.”
Jessica says she looks at South Pacific Cacao as proof the greatest gift is giving. She says, “We do it because we believe in it, and we think it can make a difference. There’s still a lot more to do, and if we can keep maintaining it, we’re going to keep going.” It is a team commitment to curating great chocolate that fosters a taste for good.
Learn more about how smallholder cacao farmers in the Solomon Islands use GrainPro products ➜
Get your own taste of South Pacific Cacao here: