What is the future of cacao in Asia? That is a very difficult question to answer. On one hand, there are difficult times in Indonesia and Vietnam, while on the other hand cacao is thriving in unexpected places like Cambodia and Taiwan.
Let’s take it step-by-step, region by region, country by country. We will skip the locations in the Pacific region like Hawaii, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Samoa with the exception of Papua New-Guinea (we consider this a part of the Indonesian archipelago) . For those who want to know more details about the history of cacao in South-East Asia, you can check out this page.
According to an older article by Max Gandy – on her famous blog Damecacao – a certain Taiwanese called Chiu was the one who brought cacao to the ‘Republic of China’ in 2003. He started not only the first cacao farm in Taiwan (in Pintung County) but also the first bean-to-bar chocolate company. 16 years later there are six cacao farms in Taiwan, while Taiwanese chocolate makers are making world fame.
FuWan chocolate won dozens of gold, silver, and bronze awards at the World Finals of the International Chocolate Awards 2019. And FuWan was not the only one. Also their Taiwanese colleagues of Zeng Zhiyuan, Q Sweet, Chuang Chocolate, Cemas Kakanen, Cocoa Yummy, Cona’s, and Love Brown Cacao were honoured. The future of Taiwan chocolate looks brighter than ever. However, the future of Taiwan cacao will always be overshadowed by limited production, due to the climate. The fact that hardly any cacao beans are leaving the island underlines the continuous scarcity of Taiwan cacao.
Yes, you read it well: China. More, in particular, the southern island Hainan. The driving force behind the cacao initiative is the Hainan Wanning Xinlong cocoa company. This company started in 2012 by building a demonstration hub. According to their website, they support now a group of farmers with a total of 1,000 acres (around 400 hectares). This should translate into a minimum of 800 metric tonnes of cacao per year. If Taiwan is able to successfully grow cacao, then the more southern located Hainan island must certainly be able to kick off a healthy cacao production.
A first report has been published where researchers compare cacao beans from Hainan with Papua New-Guinea, and Indonesia. The Hainan beans are 20% smaller than the Indonesian beans and contain 25% less butter. But it is unclear if the trees, from which the researched beans originate, are of a similar age. At this moment it is still unclear if the future of cacao in Asia will get a good push in the right direction with Hainan cacao.
India is accelerating in terms of cocoa. not only in terms of production but especially also in terms of consumption. Less than 10 years ago, the average Indian ate only 25 grams of chocolate per year. Now they already put 170 grams per year in their mouths. This opens up a wealth of possibilities for local chocolate companies who now can experiment by mixing chocolate with local Indian spices. Despite the still very modest consumption of chocolate per capita, India was already one of the top 5 chocolate consuming countries in the world in terms of total consumption in 2016. This is of course also due to the enormous population of 1.3 billion people.
Why do Indians suddenly love chocolate so much? In a consumer study, Mintel found that over two in five Indian consumers believe sweet or sugary snacks like chocolates and cakes are healthy, with one in three looking to these kinds of snacks as an energy source.
Local production of cacao simply can’t keep up. It grows fast but not fast enough. According to mister Venkatesh H Hubballi, Director, Directorate of Cashewnut & Cocoa Development (DCCD), the production of cacao has risen by 46 percent to 18,920 tonnes in 2016-17 from 12,954 tonnes in 2009-10. Venkatesh also explains in his interview in the Hindu Business Line that the amount of hectares has increased to 82,940 hectares. But the yield per hectare will definitely be lower than average. Because Indian farmers intercrop cacao trees heavily with other trees like coconut, areca nut, oil palm, and rubber.
There can’t be any other conclusion that with this super fast-growing chocolate demand, Indian farmers will decide to plant more and more cacao. Especially the southern region of India (Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala) are suitable for the cacao crop. No doubt that in the next two decades, these regions will join the ranks of the largest producing areas of cacao.
Despite a long history of cacao growing, Sri Lanka still produces a modest 1,300 metric tons of dry cacao beans. For centuries, the Dutch used Sri Lanka as an important trading post in the Indian ocean. But besides some limited activities, they were never seriously interested in planting cacao in Sri Lanka, despite the favorable climate conditions. When the Dutch were occupied by the French in 1796, the British saw their opportunity and took control of the island. And it was the British who started the commercial cultivation of cacao in Sri Lanka in 1834.
Nevertheless, cacao production doesn’t seem to increase in Sr Lanka. It is difficult to find a reason why cacao is not gaining momentum. With the fast-growing chocolate consumption of India next door, it seems a golden opportunity.
The Philippines, as a colony of the Spaniards, were the first region outside the Americas where cocoa was planted.
Hernan Cortes was the first Spaniard who recognized the qualities of the cacao beans in 1519. But it took more than a century before Westerners planted cacao outside of the Mayan territories. The Dutch started cacao plantations in Curacao island in 1620. France introduced cacao to islands like Martinique, St Lucia, and the Dominican Republic, between 1660 and 1714. The British grew cacao in Jamaica in 1670. And the Portuguese brought cacao to Ghana. But this was only in 1879.
In 1660, a Spanish galleon transported one single cacao plant from Mexico to the Philippines. It was a gift for Bartolome Brabo, a priest in Camarines Norte. This plant can well be the mother of most of the cacao in Asia. Because it was from the Philippines that the cacao tree found her way into Malaysia and Indonesia.
With such a reputation as the motherland of cacao in Asia, one would expect the Philippines to be a major world producer of cacao. However, data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) shows that cacao yield only reached 8,000 metric tons in 2018. The Davao region is responsible for 80% of this yield.
Indeed, the Philippines used to be a top producer of cacao, However, in the 1980s a series of diseases like the black pod rot and the pod borer brought the cacao industry almost on its knees. Mono cropping and poor pests and disease management were the cause of this drama.
What is the future of cacao in the Philippines?
But Philippino cacao is on the rise again. The quality of Pinoy cacao also keeps improving. For the very first time won a Philippino farmer the main award for the top 20 best cacao beans in the world, in August 2019. Jose Saguban, a cocoa farmer from Davao, received his award at the Salon Du CHocolate 2019 in 2019. The Cocoa of Excellence Programme organized the event.
According to this document, Malacca has the honor of growing the first cacao tree in Malaysia. In 1778 a tree was found in the garden of a Portuguese widow in Malacca. The earliest cacao commercialization started between 1853 and 1859 in Jerangua, Terengganu. But it was only after World War II that cacao became a crop of some significance. After 1960 there was no turning back to cacao fever.
In the 1980s Malaysia even became the world’s third-largest cacao producer. The cacao area had expanded across more than 400,000 hectares. But also here the story that happened in several other countries like Brazil and the Philippines repeated: bad management, mono-cropping, and diseases took their toll. I myself also suspect that farmers in general never take action when their cacao pass the age of 25 and 30. They don’t replace their aging cacao trees because they don’t want to wait for at least three years till their trees are giving yield. In the meantime, their cacao trees grow older and older, become more vulnerable to diseases, and give lower and lower yields.
According to the Malaysian Cocoa Board, the cacao growing area has shrunk to an estimated 15,000ha in 2018, producing only 8,000 tonnes of cocoa beans.
What is the future of cacao in Malaysia?
Wilfred Ng is the director of the most significant Malaysian chocolate company, Benns chocolate. He sees in the worldwide growing popularity of craft chocolate a great chance for Malaysian cacao farmers. In an interview with the Star Online he tells that especially the soil conditions of parts of Malaysia are a golden opportunity for Malaysian farmers. “One good example is the durian. While the fruit is native to South-East Asia, the best durian varieties can only be produced here. Same with cacao, we can have some of the best cacao here to produce high-quality products such as bean-to-bar chocolates”, says Ng.
There is a lot of dispute about the introduction of cacao to Indonesia. Some like G. Wood claim that cacao found its way as early as 1560, while others like Frederic Durand talk about the period of 1690-1719. The latter seems far more plausible. Spanish Jesuit priests could have been the ones to bring cacao from Manila to the Maluku islands and Sulawesi. But it is also possible that Dutch ships carried cacao plants from South America through Sri Lanka to Sulawesi.
Largest cacao producer in Asia
Despite attempts by several Indonesians and Dutch, cacao remained an insignificant crop in Indonesia until the second half of the 20th century. The great 1970’s cacao price spike created a fantastic boom in cacao production. Indonesia became a world player in the cacao market. Many small-scale farmers started planting cacao in the 1980s. And within 10-15 years Indonesia became the world’s third-largest cacao producer.
But Indonesia is on the way down. In 2014 the production was still 400,000 metric tons, in 2019 the volume declined with almost 50% to 220,000 metric tons. One could almost predict this development: small farmers have no financial resources to replace aging trees and to wait for the new yield, for three years without income. Sulhefi Sikumbang, the previous chairman of the Indonesian Cocoa Association recognized the problem. According to his data nearly 70 percent of the cacao trees were ‘old’.
Is there a future for cacao in Indonesia?
Indonesia will still struggle for the upcoming decade, despite impressive moves by the government: the Indonesian government launched a USD $350 million program in 2009 to boost Indonesia’s cacao production, while it invested an additional USD $100 million in early 2015 to distribute seedlings. However, these efforts have shown limited results. Sikumbang said part of the problem is that the government has not succeeded in educating cacao farmers about better farming and fermentation techniques. The new chairman of the Indonesian Cocoa Association, Iskandar, says there is also the problem of ‘aging’ farmers.
But the government keeps trying. It started providing a special fertilizer suitable for cacao as of October 2019. And the Indonesian Cacao Association together with the government is finalizing a national program to raise output and improve the livelihood of farmers. Iskandar points out that this program aims to raise the country’s production to 600,000 tons by 2024.
The first encounter of the upper society in Thailand was with chocolate and not with cacao. 17th-century sources talk about the Portuguese picking up chocolate in Manila and taking it to the 17th-century Siam. Cacao plants only reached Thailand in the early 20th century, most probably brought in from Malaysia. According to Max Gandy, one of the world’s most renowned bloggers on chocolate and cacao, the journey of Thai cacao really took off in 1952, when the government began subsidizing cacao cultivation. Check out her blog on Thai cacao in Damecacao.
Another push in the right direction was the introduction of the Chumphon 1 variety. Dr. Pon developed this variety originally in Trinidad. But the name Chumphon 1 stuck when researchers at the Chumphon Horticultural Research Center in southern Thailand gave preference to this variety, due to its higher yield found that it gave them a higher yield. Nowadays it is mostly the yellow-colored Chumphon 1 that is growing in Thailand.
However, the total cacao yield in Thailand remains up to today, still very limited. With the exception of a small peak of almost 1,500 tons in the early 2000s (according to Factfish), production hangs around 125 tons per year. One of the causes of this lack of growth is climate change and the extended droughts connected to this change. This is one of the main reasons why the Chumphon collective is taking it literally higher. This group of independent farmers with 25,000 cacao trees (around 25 hectares) in southern Thailand are now also focusing on northern Thailand. They are developing more than 150,000 trees in Chiangrai and Nan, close to Myanmar, on altitudes between 300 and 500 meters.
Does the future of cacao in Thailand looks bright?
But something has changed in the Thai cacao scene. Damecacao’s Max Gandy, witnessed recently first hand a very rapid growing cacao and chocolate scene in Thailand. The journey of the Chumphon collective is another proof of this change.
And then there is also Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri. He is a lecturer at the Agricultural Production Faculty, Department of Horticulture at Maejo University. Dr. Sanh is already on a 30-year quest to push Thai cacao to higher levels. He created his own variety, the IM1, a hybrid of a Peru criollo with as Forastero variety from the Philippines. He and his wife are concentrating their efforts in the area around another northern province: Chiang Mai. His farmers only pay a small fee for the M1 seedlings and also receive training by his team. And most important from a farmer’s point of view: Dr. Sanh guarantees them a market for their cacao.
According to New Guinea Pidgin, German settlers brought cacao to Papua New-Guinea around 1900. The same website estimates the current yearly production of cacao on 45,000 tons. What is surprising is the number of fermenters, 5,500. These people buy wet beans from the farmers and ferment them in order to sell them to exporters. One of the main concerns for the current cacao productions is the lack of maintenance. A lack of pruning, pest control, and shade management will lead to diseases and low yields. This happened in the devastating period around 2006. The feared cocoa pod borer found its way to Papua New Guinea and ruined in some areas around 90 percent of the crop.
Another concern for buyers is the traditional way of drying cacao beans in wood-fired dryers. The developed smoke affects the taste of the beans. A few chocolatiers praise this ‘smoky’ flavor but most bean-to-bar companies try to avoid these cacaos.
Sponsors like the Global Environment Facility replace the traditional wood-fired dryers by new solar dome dryers. Initiatives like this immediately spark the interest of new buyers worldwide. UK’s chocolate Wave owner Martyn O’Dare mentions in an interview with Australia’s Phama: “It’s (cocoa) grown in paradise, has a unique taste. It has really powerful fruity notes, tobacco notes and lots of other flavors.”
Brad Kintzer of San Fransisco’s TCHO added: “If the cocoa is processed properly, it is some of the best cocoa in the world. Not all countries can say that. PNG really has a unique flavor profile that could be very much sought after in the developing specialty chocolate market. So there’s a lot of potentials for PNG to focus on quality and branding itself as one of the top flavor countries in the world.” In the future of cacao in Asia, PNG cacao will certainly fulfill an important role.
Cacao in Myanmar had a restart with one man: Jean-Yves Branchard. In 2003 he brought cacao seedlings of 15 different varieties in from a French research center in Vanuatu. In the course of the years, four of these varieties survived. Cocoa grows up to 20 degrees latitude north and south of the Equator. That makes the largest part of Myanmar above Yangon unsuitable. But the whole stretch from Yangon southwards could work well for cacao. However, according to a report of a Thai-Myanmar journal, a lot of soil in Myanmar tends to be too acidic to grow cacao trees. Nevertheless, Jean-Yves succeeded and even started a chocolate making company in the country in 2013, Ananda Cocoa & Coffee.
As of 2017, another French company started in Myanmar: Dyna Grow. Concentrating their efforts on the Tanintharyi region, in the complete south of Myanmar. They have set up a contract-farming construction and signed an agreement with 40 local farmers. What the farmers can expect? Technical support, free seedlings, and free natural fertilizers for a maximum of three years. Dyna Grow will buy back the cacao pods from the farmers but according to the same journal, they will pay quite a low price of 400 kyats for 1.6 kg, which comes to around 0.17 USD per kg. I personally think this incentive is too low to motivate new farmers.
The future for Myanmar cacao seems in better hands with Jean-Yves. And if you listen to the podcast interview on Damecacao with Jean-Yves of December 2019, you might agree.
After a two-year Sino-French war in 1885, the French obtained control over Vietnam. In 1887 they formed French Indochina with Cambodia. Laos became the last piece of the Indochine puzzle after the Franco-Siamese War in 1893. During the colonization period, Vietnam became the most lucrative area for France. This became even more clear when in the second half of the 20th century they easily gave up control over Cambodia and Laos but kept fighting against independence in Vietnam. Rubber and rice were the main agricultural sources of income for the colonizer. A catholic priest, Father Gernot, wanted to add cacao to this. He experimented in the southern Ben Tre province. The attempt however failed.
Cuba and USSR
After the American Vietnamese war in the 1980s, the Vietnamese government used coffee to grant small farmers private land ownership. This crop became an overwhelming success and even resulted in Vietnam becoming the number two coffee exporter in the world. The ruling communist party of Vietnam hoped to repeat the success with cacao. They hired experts from Cuba and the USSR. But when the plan was about to take off, the iron curtain fell and the USSR dissolved.
Finally, at the start of this new millennium and with the help of big market players like Cargill, Puratos, and Mars, cacao got the farmer’s attention, which it so desperately needed. Right now Vietnam is the proud producer of approximately 6,000 metric tons of cacao beans per year.
But the future of cacao in Vietnam is certainly not a given. There are worries, especially in the Mekong Delta. The continuous constructions of water dams by Chinese companies in the Mekong River in Laos affect the strong supply of water in the Delta. As a result, the earth becomes more and more salinized. Rice farmers can find a solution by changing to shrimp farming. But cacao farmers have to look on sadly at how the quality of their trees is declining. It also must become more and more difficult for the growing army of bean-to-bar makers in Vietnam like BelVie to source good quality Vietnamese cacao beans.
Luckily cacao is still doing very well in the Đắk Lắk Province in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and is even expanding. Our former Vietnamese cacao consultant Lam Dinh supervises a recent development of 300 hectares in the rural Ea Súp district.
There are no written records on commercial cacao farming in Cambodia before 2014. We can fairly state that in the last few centuries Cambodia was consistently skipped as a location for growing cacao. The French had the best possibilities to introduce cacao in Cambodia but their main focus stayed on Vietnam. Cambodia (and Laos for that part) were economically far less interesting for this colonial power. Many regions in Cambodia were also or too flooded or too hot for cacao.
The best conditions for cacao farming were in the East, in the provinces Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri. The average altitude of 300 – 800 meter was perfect, the sea of tropical forests created a humid and less hot climate and the red, volcanic soil would later appear to be one of the best soils for the crop. But there was one setback: this region was almost unreachable and the forests impenetrable. Until the Chinese and the Vietnamese took interest in the availability of high-quality timber and started building the first asphalt road to the province of Mondulkiri in 2006/2007.
In 2014 the Dutchman Stefan Lambert Struik joined forces with the Cambodian Chanthol Chean. They turned to the previously mentioned Lam Dinh, the best cacao expert in South-East Asia for help. And halfway 2014 they planted the first commercial cacao in the history of Cambodia. They got ten different varieties from Vietnam; all of these on their turn originating from Malaysia (Prang Besar Cocoa varieties). A devastating drought put a temporary halt to the dream of this international duo. The drought even resulted in a complete stop of the famous 3-tier Bu Sra waterfall. Their dream of producing and exporting the first Cambodian beans in world’s history, completely burst. They had to start all over again in 2016. But in the end, it all paid off, especially thanks to the perseverance of Chanthol. His first modest yield was in 2018. And in 2019 he delivered the first 800 kg cacao beans to the brand-new chocolate makers of Wat Chocolate in Siem Reap.
What is the future of cacao in Cambodia?
2019 brought also the start of the first cacao association in Cambodia: CFARM, the Cacao Farmers Association Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri. This association now groups bigger farmers like Kamkav Farm with other new cacao farmers in these two provinces. In total, these farmers planted now around 40 hectares. CFARM director Veasna Em expects next year to welcome at least 20 more farmers. Personal export contacts in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and the USA also help. They are music to the ears of the farmers. The future of cacao in Asia is getting a welcome push from this new Cambodian ‘cacao kid’ on the block.