• How eating monk fruit chocolate and bars made to ancient Aztec recipes helps empower cacao farmers in the Solomon Islands. (South Pacific Cacao)Source: South Pacific Cacao
With monk-fruit chocolate and beans that evoke banana bread, South Pacific Cacao empowers cacao farmers in the Solomon Islands.
Lee Tran Lam

24 Sep 2020 - 9:53 PM  UPDATED 25 Sep 2020 - 12:18 PM

In tough moments, we all like to resort to chocolate.

But the sweet power of cacao and the satisfying snap of a chocolate bar can also generate much-needed social impact and improve people's lives – as entrepreneur Brian Atkin and chocolatier Jessica Pedemont have shown through their South Pacific Cacao enterprise.

In 2014, Atkin was working on cervical-cancer prevention projects with his mother on the Solomon Islands. The initiatives included rolling out the HPV vaccination which helps prevent cervical cancer. 

As Atkin was finishing up, his cousin approached him in Honiara because their relatives in the region needed help. Their family in Makira lived in an economically deprived village and were in desperate need of opportunities. He was told, "All your cousins, they don't have money, they can't send their kids to school, they don't have clothes for their kids." 

Was there a way Atkin could help?

His background was in IT, but he gradually realised the solution was a sweet one: chocolate. Really good chocolate.

Local smallholder farmers supply around 6,000 tonnes of cacao to the bulk market in Asia where it's turned into cocoa butter for cosmetics or mass-market confectionery. "They just make such a small amount from that," he says.

Unlike supermarket-quality chocolate (which can be cheapened with hydrogenated vegetable fats and other cocoa butter substitutes), he realised that high-quality, single-origin cacao used for premium chocolate could earn farmers significantly more.

"Little did I know how difficult it was," he says. After all, he was maintaining a full-time IT job in Australia while trying to help develop an artisan cacao market in the Solomon Islands region – an experience that nearly left him bankrupt. Luckily, his intense dedication paid off. By forming Makira Gold, he could help farmers grow higher-quality cacao, and give them access to better facilities and markets for their products.

The result? Farmers are earning double the amount they get from the bulk market: $3,400 a tonne instead of $1,700 a tonne.

"They've got the quality of ingredients…that deserve an international stage."

Through the South Pacific Cacao social enterprise he runs with Pedemont, he's also putting chocolate from this region on the map, creating more demand and economic opportunities for farmers in the area.

"They've got the quality of ingredients… that deserve an international stage," says Pedemont. She's lived on a chocolate plantation in Hawaii, worked for one of the most expensive chocolate brands in Switzerland, and runs the Chocolate Artisan store alongside South Pacific Cacao's shopfront in Sydney's Haberfield. She knows her stuff.

The pastry chef has also spent time in the kitchen with respected industry figures like Stefano Manfredi and Charlie Trotter. But her self-described title as a "cacao evangelist" might sum her up best. When she talks about ingredients from the Pacific, it deeply personalises the story of the farmer who grew the beans that flavoured your chocolate bar.

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She takes the beans Atkin sources from Makira Gold and transforms it into brilliant chocolate for the South Pacific Cacao shop. She remembers grinding her first batch of beans from Temotu, which is a three-day boat trip from Honiara. "It smelt like there was banana bread being cooked in the backroom for an hour."

The cacao comes from the region's easternmost point, via cocoa farmer Philip Lepping. "He has, potentially, the first lineage beans from when the Spaniards came over in the 16th century, looking for King Solomon's treasure," says Pedemont. She turns this historic bean into a two-ingredient 75 per cent dark chocolate bar.

Then there's the strong honey note you can taste in a 75 per cent dark chocolate from a different part of the Solomon Islands. "These are David Kebu's beans. He's based in the Guadalcanal, he manages that farm with his extended family and six sisters. It's a 10-hectare farm that's considered quite large. He was in the top 15 [in the Salon du Chocolat] in Paris, which is huge, to be rated on that international level.

"This little island has product that is on the podium," says the chocolatier. She accentuates its flavour with a splash of Olliedean olive oil from Mudgee NSW.

"This little island has product that is on the podium."

The way farmers dry their cacao can influence how the resulting chocolate tastes – and in the Pacific, this causes problems. Traditionally, the drying is done over fire for three days, with someone raking the beans that entire time. All that smoke causes respiratory issues for workers, and chopping enough wood to keep a fire stoked for three days has an environmental cost. The resulting chocolate is also poor in quality "because it tastes very smoky", says Atkin.

So Makira Gold has introduced solar alternatives that allow farmers to dry a tonne of beans in a region often plagued by rain – producing a naturally sun-dried flavour in the process.

And unlike the smoking huts, these dryers are portable: easy to transport from village to village, says Pedemont.

Atkin also hopes to create opportunities for locals through this Biana Bana initiative, which honours his late uncle Barnabas. The long-term plan is to turn it into a cocoa production area that also doubles as an eco-tourism landmark that showcases local Solomon Islands culture.

Back in Sydney, Pedemont is drawing attention to South Pacific Cacao by translating the beans into inspiring flavours, such as a monk fruit bar that she's recently made vegan with the addition of coconut milk.

"There's a lot of dairy-free chocolate on the market that's about as good as candle wax," she says.

Then there's the gritty, textured Modica bar, which is influenced by her Italian heritage and her trip to Modica, Sicily, where she stumbled across 50 chocolate shops offering this type.

"Who knew Italians were down there in Sicily stone-grinding cacao?" she says.

Its rough, unrefined nature contrasts with the slick sweetness of Italian staples like Baci and Ferrero. That's because the Modica recipe comes from an ancient Aztec style of making chocolate.

It's sold via South Pacific Cacao's online store, but its presence in the physical shopfront pays tribute to the Italian community in its Haberfield neighbourhood. It's just another way that South Pacific Cacao celebrates the places its chocolate comes from.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.


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