Flying into Kuala Lumpur from above, all you can see are oil palm trees, an emerald green that is slowly suffocating Malaysian forests. These trees produce the fruits from which palm oil is harvested, and they do not welcome visitors, which has been detrimental to Malaysia’s biodiversity. The region around Kuala Lumpur used to be densely forested with cocoa trees, visible from kilometers away. Nonetheless, cocoa output has decreased from one of the top ten in the world to only a few thousand tons per year, compared to the millions of tons produced in West Africa.
Malaysia today imports much more cocoa than it exports, making cocoa processing a major business. There are still vast patches of cocoa growing across the nation, mostly in Malaysian Borneo, but the industry is dying. To assess its future prospects in the face of rival crops, it is also necessary to evaluate Malaysian consumer preferences. There is a physical difference between eastern and western Malaysia; traveling between the two seems like entering a separate nation.
Yet, their agricultural industries are quite similar, with durian, oil palm, and rubber dominating, all for export. Only cocoa, one of the principal plant-based goods produced in Malaysia, is no longer cultivated primarily in Malaysia. Yet, Malaysians are fond of their chocolate, forming taste memories around the palm oil-blended chocolates most typically seen on grocery shelves and making it extremely simple to locate a chocolate store. Malaysia may seem to be a chocolate destination by now, but it isn’t. No, not yet.
Cacao’s History in Malaysia
Cacao has been grown in Malaysia for almost two centuries; the first reported pods were discovered in a garden in Malacca in 1778. The fruit is said to have arrived around 1770 through Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. The Sri Lanka pods were most likely sourced from Brazil. Malacca had been built up by the Portuguese and Dutch at the period, until a conflict with the Netherlands enabled the Malay people to reclaim it.
Malaysia would become a global power in cocoa production during the following century and a half of British rule, being in the top 10 producers for decades. World War II significantly disrupted that trend, but growing European demand expanded cultivation after the battles ended. This was notably noticeable in the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Up until around thirty years ago, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah was one of the leading cocoa-producing places in the world. But then CPB showed up. The cocoa pod borer, or CPB, stiffened cocoa fruits and reduced output amount across Malaysia. Farmers were so frustrated that many of them replaced their cocoa plants with other crops; bigger farms often replaced their crop with oil palm trees.
Malaysia was already one of the world’s leading cocoa processors at the time, therefore the country’s cocoa imports continuously increased even as cocoa output declined. Oil palm, rubber, coffee, and tiny quantities of cocoa and tea are now the most frequent crops in Sabah. Cacao is still the most difficult of these crops to cultivate. The upkeep alone is a huge task, but so is enticing farmers to return to cocoa farming.
Malaysia’s Cacao Strategy
While many farmers pulled down their cocoa trees to plant other crops in the 1990s, others just couldn’t afford it. Thousands of cocoa plants were left abandoned around the nation, some for decades. Most of the current patches are cocoa-only, while some include durian, coconut, or other income crops mixed in. According to Ning-Geng Ong, the creator and cocoa grower of Chocolate Concierge, Malaysia’s lengthy history with cacao has transformed it into a local crop.
He claims that if you endure the leeches, you may see cocoa plants in the wild in Malaysia. Agroforestry-style growth is becoming increasingly popular across the nation, and it has the ability to increase farmer income without requiring them to cultivate exclusively cocoa. It also results in more intriguing cacao micro-lots for small-batch chocolate producers like himself.
Ning has adapted this wild way of production on his own fields since commencing on this Malaysian chocolate experiment, inspired by the attitude of the indigenous people he works with. Among the crops he is importing are native species that are on the verge of extinction.
Regrettably, Ning’s innovative method is out of the ordinary. The majority of Malaysian chocolate is still fermented inconsistently. This is because most farmers sell to intermediaries or cocoa processing plants that provide a predetermined low price. Farmers have little motivation to ferment properly as a result of this. In reality, most farmers just drain the liquid from their cocoa after scooping it out of pods, resulting in a ferment-by-default that lasts only two to three days before the seeds are dried.
One of the reason for these low pricing is that farmers who could switch crops in the 1980s and 1990s did so long ago. Farmers who are still farming cocoa are often impoverished, either caring for trees because it is all they have or disregarding them in favor of other labor. For farmers like Rustam Bakka, who was born and reared on Borneo, abandoning was not an option; the cocoa was there, so they cared for and sold it, and they still do.
Rustam is currently the primary fermentation manager and a regional cocoa buyer from fields around his birthplace in Keningau. He recalls sucking on the pulp of cocoa fruits cultivated on his uncle’s property as a youngster, where he was reared after his parents died. As a youngster, he had never sampled commercial chocolate. The closest he came was a glass of Milo, a malted cocoa drink he had for the first time when he was 13 years old.
Despite the various cacao-derived goods produced in Malaysia, the majority of rural cocoa growers do not eat chocolate. They’ll eat the fruit like it’s a fruit, but they’re not interested in the chocolates that are abundantly accessible in Malaysia.
Asian Cocoa Information Center
Despite diminishing levels of cocoa production and processing, Malaysia remains one of the world’s leading cocoa knowledge hubs. For decades, the governments not only maintained a robust genetic bank of cocoas, but they also collaborated with other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand to identify the best cocoa varietals for their geographical conditions.
The Malaysian Cocoa Board, headquartered in Kota Kinabalu, a city in eastern Malaysia, currently maintains outposts across Malaysian Borneo, including a handful on the peninsula. They also have the world’s fourth-largest collection of cocoa genetics, and most Asian nations can trace their chocolate species back to a Malaysian-born variety.
All six or seven Malaysian farms I saw featured a variety of cacao; most farmers produce at least six diverse varietals, particularly given what occurred with pests in the 1980s and 1990s. The Cocoa Board, whose main goal is to encourage farmers to grow cocoa wherever they can, has conducted the majority of the study on appropriate cocoa kinds and soil conditions. The Board assists these farmers by educating them how to improve the yield of their cacao and linking them with local cocoa purchasers.
Since almost all farmers have access to mobile phones, the Board takes advantage of this by delivering daily cocoa prices through text message. Apart from that, they give knowledge on how to properly fertilize trees. This information is then shared and debated in farmers WhatsApp groups, which are locally-based crews of farmers with a membership of up to 100 people. According to a higher-up at the Board, most Malaysians have been farmers for generations and have developed their own methods of farming without the use of pesticides.
Although the majority of Malaysian farmers still do not thoroughly ferment their cacao, they are becoming aware that fermentation is critical for earning a decent income as a cocoa farmer. Although the Cocoa Board advertises similar pricing for each area of Malaysia, these are not the prices farmers get. Most cacao producers must sell to intermediaries to transfer their chocolate to distant gathering sites, further reducing revenue.
As of November 2019, the current commodity price was far under $2 USD per kg, and the collecting facility was providing $1680 USD per ton. The price disparity may widen drastically from there, with the premium market paying 2-4x the commodity price but being far more difficult to obtain. Since commodity prices are unlikely to jump overnight, the Board has switched its emphasis.
They are currently collaborating with farmers not just to improve quality and quantity, but also to completely implement the idea of farm to table production in Malaysia. Farmers that correctly ferment and dry their beans would be able to collaborate with higher-paying processors manufacturing higher-quality goods in Malaysia, according to this concept. Although the farmers I met in Malaysia were able to do so, I only met with them because they had previously done so; for most farmers, it is still a pipe dream.
Artisan Chocolate in Malaysia
Although Malaysia has at least a dozen small-scale chocolate manufacturers, industrial chocolate continues to dominate the niche business. According to one local chocolate manufacturer, Malaysians adore chocolate, but they are so accustomed to bad chocolate that it takes a concerted effort to convert them to artisan chocolate.
Imported chocolates were a rare pleasure for Josephine Lu, the creator of Borneo-based Jaws & Claws Chocolate. Cadbury and Van Hauten were the most popular, but nowadays, locally-made compound chocolates are omnipresent. According to my interviews and observations, the most popular chocolate items in Malaysia right now are milk chocolate-based, most likely some type of confectionary or molded solid chocolate.
Then there’s Milo, the ubiquitous Australian beverage Rustam first sampled when he was 13; the corporation even sponsors restaurant signage throughout the nation. Artisan chocolate products such as chocolate bars and bonbons have yet to become popularity.
According to Ning, Malaysia is a “black hole” in the Asian chocolate industry (from Chocolate Concierge). Despite the fact that there are many manufacturers around Southeast Asia, the Malaysian artisan chocolate sector has been very quiet. Nevertheless, don’t confuse diligence and devotion with absence. Ning supplies cocoa to a dozen chocolate manufacturers across the globe in addition to his work with agroforestry on indigenous tribal property.
But his objective isn’t to sell a lot of Malaysian cacao. He just wants to produce high-quality cacao and chocolate and enable others to earn a career from cocoa cultivation. As the crop has resembled a local species, it has grown more devastating to watch it taken down and replaced with crops that choke the very air we breathe.
Throughout Malaysia’s decades of decline, cocoa output in neighboring Indonesia has expanded, with prospects for additional production in neighbouring Cambodia and Myanmar. Cacao usually travels to the cheapest spot, according to Eddie Kim of Bonaterra Chocolate. Nobody wants farmers to quit a crop with such a long history and generational expertise, much alone one with such a low environmental effect, yet it is still occurring.
Only in areas where chocolate producers engage directly with farmers to raise quality to a worldwide high level is cultivation increasing. If everything goes as planned, Bonaterra will be able to accomplish for Malaysia what Marou has done for Vietnamese cocoa: make you desire it.
The Malaysian Cocoa Industry’s Future
Cacaos major rivals on Borneo are oil palm and durian, and is nearly the same on peninsular Malaysia. Both crops are often produced profitably by themselves in non-biodiverse environments. According to my source at the Malaysian Cocoa Board, it is a danger to the sector. Farmers who opt to switch crops will not see a gradual transition; all of their cocoa will be harvested.
Malaysian growers cannot compete with pricing coming from Africa. The level of life differs, as do the labor expenses.
Ning-Geng Ong, Chocolate Concierge’s Founder and Cocoa Farmer
If Malaysian cacao production is to recover, it must be done carefully. While the Malaysian Cocoa Board continues to promote the notion of farm to table and collaboration with chocolate producers, it is obvious than ever that repairing the cacao sector will not be as quick as destroying it. Cacao prices do not alter suddenly, therefore the strategy must be creative. Farmers may benefit from the farm-to-table and artisanal food trends.
The issue is scaling everything. The notion of farm to table is already embedded in the Malay ideas of hulu and hilir, which signify upstream and downstream, respectively. Farmers earning $1.70USD or less per kg of dried cacao are nowhere to be seen in this farm-to-table mock-up. They can’t even see the figurative table. As helpful as the Cocoa Board may try to be, they are not the ones that make things from cocoa.
Each endeavor to reintroduce Malaysian cacao production is spearheaded by a single creative individual, such as Ning, Rustam, Josephine, or Eddie, all of whom I interviewed for the Malaysia episode of Chocolate On The Road. They are the folks bringing single origin Malaysian beans to market and, finally, a place at the table for farmers. And now everyone is hungry.