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Nourishing a sustainable cocoa trade

©IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

On a dusty side street in Auki, a seaside market town on the island of Malaita, Arania Enterprises is bustling. Cocoa dryers come and go, bringing plenty of cocoa beans for sale, and its unassuming wood-framed warehouse is stocked full of giant bags ready for export.

Arania, one of the leading buyers and exporters of cocoa in the Solomon Islands, has been operating for over 30 years. It’s a family business, too, run by father and son team Brown and David Fono.

In 2016, Arania got a new opportunity: it was invited to be a lead partner of the IFAD-supported Rural Development Programme (RDP II), an initiative seeking to boost the socio-economic development of farmers throughout the Solomon Islands. It’s easy to see why.

Brown and David Fono in front of the Arania Enterprises warehouse, full of 80-kilo bags of dried cocoa beans ready for export.

RDP II puts communities and partnerships first. Specifically, it was designed around a “chain-link” model – one that establishes lucrative relationships between local agri-businesses, like Arania, and small-scale growers and dryers who produce commodities that are bountiful in the Solomon Islands, such as cocoa and coconut. The programme, a joint effort between IFAD, the Government of the Solomon Islands, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the European Union and the World Bank, had identified this model as an optimal way to help local businesses modernize their operations, increase their local value addition and improve their incomes. 

RDP II initially approached Arania because of their experience in commodities trading and their familiarity with the local communities, tribal customs and farming practices. They knew the new partnership model would spell a change in the way local producers worked together, and that it would require a certain level of trust and understanding – and as it turns out, it didn’t develop overnight.

“Before, the growers worked individually and sold wet beans on the open market. Now they sell to the dryers who sell to us,” explains David. “In the beginning, a major challenge for us was building trust between the growers, dryers and our company.”

But the Fonos, cocoa growers themselves, have always prioritized building good relationships with the cocoa dryers and farmers they work with. Bit by bit, trust grew.

“Now, everyone in the partnership understands how the value chain is designed to work, and accepts their respective roles,” David says. “They have a positive mindset about it and see how it is effective in building up their livelihoods. It’s really working.”

In its role as RDP II lead partner, Arania has worked in tandem with three farmers’ associations in Malaita since 2018. One of them is REVIRESCO Farmer's Association Trust Board Partnership, located in Faalau Village in northern Malaita. Bobby Kalafiu, the cooperative’s coordinator, is the grassroots link between Arania and more than 100 farmers who grow cocoa on plots in the community plantation. He buys wet beans from the growers, which he dries in both traditional fire-powered drying sheds and more modern solar sheds (provided by RDP II), then sells to Arania.

David and Bobby often work closely together to gain the growers’ confidence. They also conduct training sessions on modern organic production techniques, farm management, and crop processing, along with some more specialized courses like financial literacy workshops, to help the farmers strengthen their livelihoods. Because many of the farmers never received formal schooling, David and Bobby take a “look and learn” approach, supplementing their presentations with image-based handouts.

Bobby Kalafiu, cocoa farmer and REVIRESCO coordinator, stands in the entrance of a solar drying shed provided by the programme.

Bobby also distributes tools provided by RDP II to the farmers and demonstrates how to use them. “Our training sessions are very ‘hands-on’ and take place here on the cocoa plantation, where the farmers can learn by doing as they work with the new tools,” he says.

As a part of the training, David and Bobby also teach the farmers how to grow seedlings for grafting in the REVIRESCO nursery. “A good pod will have more than 100 beans,” explains Bobby. “We plant beans from those superior pods in the nursery to grow seedlings. Then we teach the farmers how to use their new tools to graft twigs taken from the seedlings onto established trees.”

The cocoa growers appreciate the training sessions. Already, they are harvesting significantly more high-quality organic beans, which they sell to REVIRESCO for a fair price.

Clifton Melza, 40, is one of the cocoa farmers in the REVIRESCO association who has benefited from the RDP II chain-link initiative. Like many Solomon Islanders, Clifton left Guadalcanal, the main island, in 1999 to escape the devastating ethnic violence and civil conflict known as the Tensions. He returned to his native Malaita and has been growing cocoa for the past 20 years. Things really took off for him in 2018, when RDP II came to his village. He received much-needed tools and training, and learned to grow seedlings and graft the twigs from the improved varieties onto his existing trees.

Clifton Melza inspects cocoa saplings in the REVIRESCO community nursery, Faalau Village, Malaita.

As the yield and quality of his harvests has greatly increased, so has Clifton’s income. “With our higher income, we are able to more easily pay the school fees for our kids, improve our housing and take better care of our health,” he says.

When he is not in school or down at the seaside fishing and swimming with his friends, his son James, 12 years old, likes spending time together with his father on the plot, raking weeds and learning about cocoa. “This is not just about us parents,” Clifton says. “We know that RDP II will not be here helping us forever. We are working hard to be sure that the improvements we have made are sustainable and that we pass on to our children the things we have learned. Our children will take over from us some day. Our cocoa plantations are our succession plan for a better future.”

The RDP II chain-link partnership model has paid off for Charles, Bobby and David – a win-win for everyone. It’s now being replicated across Malaita to benefit other growers and dryers. And as David likes to point out, people from the Pacific to Europe to the USA and all points in between benefit, too. “The high quality Malaita cocoa beans that Arania Enterprises exports in bulk end up in delicious chocolate bars somewhere in the world."

 

Learn more about IFAD’s work in the Solomon Islands.