Cacao and Chocolate Culture in Fiji

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While Fiji is not a well-known chocolate origin, the island chain produces hundreds of tons of cacao each year. Except for the fact that it represents increased output, this quantity scarcely registers on a global scale. Despite this, the great majority of chocolate eaten on the islands is imported and comes in very unique purple packaging.

But, the tide is starting to turn as almost a century of history and a few decades of relentless labour gradually transform the paradigm. One couple’s efforts to find a better market for local growers resulted in the decision that changed the Fijian chocolate business. Yet the expansion hasn’t stopped there.

Fijian History in a Nutshell

Before we get too deeply into Fiji’s connection with chocolate, I believe it is necessary to first grasp some of the country’s history. Fiji is a tiny country in the South Pacific with a population of roughly 900,000 people and a few hundred islands. Most people who have heard of Fiji see it as a large tropical paradise, or, more popularly, rugby players and FIJI Water. Yet Fiji has more than just clear blue ocean and white sand beaches.

Fiji has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous Austronesian and Melanesian peoples. Europeans started trading links with native Fijians in the early 1800s, after first meeting them decades previously. Yet, by the late 1800s, the British had claimed Fiji as a colony. They soon started trafficking individuals from their already-established colony in India.

Since so many Indians were brought to Fiji, the country’s population is now around one-third Indo-Fijian. Several of these fourth and fifth generation Indians continue to speak Hindi and follow Hinduism or Islam. Yet, indigenous culture is not extinct. Melanesian tribal designs may still be seen in clothes, souvenirs, and even tattoos around the nation.

Fijians are quick to grin and exceedingly honest, in my experience. Several traditional recipes are made from taro, cassava, and shellfish. Yet, people and a desire for commerce were not the only things that the Brits brought to the South Pacific. The English also introduced cacao at the same period.

How Fijian Cacao Got Its Name

According to local chocolate producer Tomo Zukoshi, the Royal Botanical Garden of London supplied cacao to Fiji in the 1880s, which had already been claimed as a British colony. Because of rising levies on Caribbean commodities, the British had made finding non-Caribbean cacao supplies a top priority. Cacao trees arrived in the islands of Fiji after a nearly year trek from South Asia and Oceania.

Cacao was spontaneously disseminated by local people and animals over the following several decades, but attention gradually faded. But, in the 1980s, the cacao was given new life when the government purchased some cacao in an attempt to encourage its production. Eventually, it was recalled again in the mid-2000s, with Tomos’ attempts to purchase from local farmers around SavuSavu. Tomo is still purchasing from the same farmers, as well as dozens more around the islands, 15 years later.

Several commercial cacao ventures have begun in the cacao industry during those sporadic years, notably Cacao Fiji in the northern section of Vanua Levu Island. Cacao Fiji’s tiny team is working with the government to persuade local farmers to maintain their present cocoa rather than replace it with a rival crop such as kava. In addition to their own crop, the crew purchases wet cacao beans from various farmers in the area. Most of the produce is shipped to Nadi, where the Cacao Fiji owners transform it into chocolate.

Smaller farm ventures have also begun, with farmers taking the initiative to not only cultivate their own cacao, but also process it properly and export it or make it into chocolate. This is yet a modest movement, but it has the potential to play a significant role in the future of Fijian chocolate.

Fijian chocolate artisans

There are now two major Fijian chocolate brands: Vanua Chocolate and Fijiana Cacao. The latter is owned and run by Tomo and Harumi Zukoshi, and was once known as Adi Chocolate. Nonetheless, numerous newer enterprises have emerged throughout the years, the most notable of which being Vanua Chocolate.

Vanua Chocolate was founded by Zain and Arif Khan. Cacao Fiji, the cacao processor in northern Vanua Levu, is also owned by them. Zain and her husband, who grew raised in Fiji, relocated to Nadi few years ago. They launched Cacao Fiji in 2015, then Vanua Chocolate three years later, a decade after Tomo launched Adi Chocolate.

The nation still imports the majority of the 500MT of chocolate eaten on Fiji each year, with most of it coming from the Cadbury line of purple chocolates. Many Fijians are beginning to enjoy locally-made chocolate, but the $15-16FJD ($8USD) bars remain out of reach for the majority of Fijians. As a result, during the previous fifteen years, the majority of Fiji’s chocolate consumption has slipped into the hands of tourists, establishing a dependency that is difficult to break away from.

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The Importance of Tourism in Fijian Chocolate

Tourism is very important to the economy of Fiji. According to official statistics from 2019, vacationers spend more than any other kind of tourist, and they spend thousands of Fijian dollars every trip. With the number of tourists to Fiji each year, this amounts to a significant portion of the country’s Economy. This is an ideal chance for local enterprises producing a 100% Fijian product, such as chocolate produced with local cacao and sugar.

Regrettably, the bulk of tourist revenues come in the main island’s only area, Viti Levu. The two artisanal Fijian chocolate businesses described above are located near the international center of Nadi (pronounced Nahn-dee). Fijiana Cacao arose from the foundation brand of Adi Chocolate, a direct-trade chocolate firm founded in 2005 in the rear of Tomo and Harumi Zukoshi’s restaurant.

Tomo says that one-third of all tourists to Fiji now test his chocolate before leaving the islands; most of his business is with resorts directly. Cacao Fiji, which purchases cacao from around the island of Vanua Levu, currently exports about 90% of the cocoa it processes. The remaining 10% is allocated to their chocolate brand, Vanua Chocolate, which mostly sells to tourist-oriented retail stores and resorts.

Coronavirus has also decimated Fiji’s cocoa sector. Notwithstanding the fact that just 18 instances of the virus have been documented in Fiji, tourism has come to a standstill. Tens of thousands of Fijians who rely on employment in the industry are looking for work, including local cacao producers and chocolate manufacturers.

Chocolate’s Future in Fiji

The future of Fijian cocoa is more unclear than ever in light of the present epidemic. Since most of the industry’s consumption reliant on constant tourists, competitive crops such as kava pose a significant threat. If you’ve never heard of kava, it’s a South Pacific plant related to the pepper family. It has soothing and muscle relaxing properties and has been used for ages as a ceremonial beverage in the area.

Since prices are now high, many farmers, including those who cultivate cocoa, are converting to cultivating kava. On the islands, however, there are some signals of optimism in the shape of modest private farms. Olsen Farm, for example, represents the third stage of Fiji’s chocolate business. The farm’s proprietors have been working hard to reintroduce cacao plants to their land and then process the cocoa themselves.

Some Fijian farmers may enter the chocolate industry, similar to what has been occurring in Hawaii. Even with smaller businesses scattered around the nation, Fijian cacao’s future is uncertain. Despite the epidemic, Tomo Zikoshi continues to purchase chocolate from growers around the islands. Some of these farmers he’s known for over a decade, and he’s kept these ties even when it’s not financially feasible, as it is right now.

That type of commitment does not go. I can’t image how Fijians are feeling right now. My heart goes out to them, as well as everyone else whose lives have been upended, if not lost, as a result of the virus. At such exceptional circumstances, I have no idea what Fiji’s cocoa business will look like in a year. Yet we all hope it remains.

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