How a new Vegan milk chocolate equivalent made with cashew nuts is helping Madagascar to help itself
This story really belongs to the wonderful team at Chocolat Madagascar and in particular Neil Kelsall founder of Raisetrade.
So as you see from my profile I am fortunate to run a small chocolate company named Lick the Spoon with my wife Diana. I say small, there are just four of us and we are very happy that way. We have been bigger but came to realise that being able to spend time with our children as they grew up was more important than conquering the world.
We are not a bean to bar chocolate maker (at least not for the most part), rather a chocolatier, and, much as a baker uses fine flour but does not do the milling part themselves, so we mostly use chocolate in the form of couverture to create luxury filled chocolates.
Traditionally chocolate has been made by large european companies with a history that dates to the slave trade. It is sad to say that even in the 21st century child labour still exists in the cocoa industry and cocoa farmers particularly in West Africa are amongst the poorest in the world.
For a typical bar of chocolate just 6% of the bar value remains in the country of origin. With Fairtrade it rises to 7.5%, but the vast majority of the revenue earned belongs further up the supply chain. Though some drying and fermentation may take place in the country of origin the more skilled work is with the large chocolate companies who for the most part tend to not build factories in the country of origin. The same is true for most commodity crops and it is something that has to change.
Back in 2013 I was attending a chocolate conference in London. Chocolate supplies are often precarious and we had recently lost a source of Grenadan couverture as the owner had sadly died. Prior to this we had used couverture made in Venezuela but the political situation made it impossible to export. So we were urgently looking for a new chocolate source, and for reasons we couldn't quite articulate at the time felt that it was better that it should be made in the country of origin. We had heard from a distributor that there was a new Chocolate made in Madagascar under scheme named Raisetrade. The scheme had been set up by a mild mannered lancashire man named Neil Kelsall and it was at that conference in 2013 that we forged the beginning of a new chocolate journey.
Neil had been an engineer for many years and had consequently travelled the word particularly in Africa. He formed the viewpoint that the best way to help developing countries was to help them to help themselves. Rather than exporting a commodity the product exported would be a finished branded product with the corresponding added value being retained in the country of origin.
Madagascar had been a former French colony and had cacao plantations planted in the North-West Sambirano valley region dating from the the late 19th century. The French had built a chocolate factory in the 1930s in the capital of Antananarivo under the name Chocolaterie Robert. Perhaps surprisingly a small domestic chocolate industry has continued to the present in Madagascar .
The factory was now wholly Malagasy owned and under Neil's guidance had created an export brand Chocolat Madagascar to try and create a high quality export product. This was actually the second attempt as an earlier fledgling attempt failed due to political instability. The Sambirano is geographically constrained and so production is limited. The unique terroir of the region coupled with the good fortune of the Portuguese to plant the highly prized but fragile Criollo cacao variety led to Madagascar having some of the finest flavour cocoa in the world. Something that had not gone unnoticed by large european companies.
The MAVA plantation was formerly Malagasy government owned and faced the danger that it would be bought by a european company leaving the Malagasy without any cacao to turn into chocolate. Fortunately a coalition of Malagasy companies managed to buy the plantation securing their future supply. It was at this point the first stage of a real move towards sustainabiliyy was made with the appointment of a passionate French agronomist to work with the cocoa farmers cataloging trees and working to restore the plantations over a 10 year period to their former glory from years of neglect. Selectively breeding the most productive trees with the finest flavour.
The prized criollo beans are the white ones when cut open in the pods above. But cross pollination can lead to pods containing the hardier but less flavoursome violet Forastero variety. Forastero beans make the bulk of the world's cocoa supply and are predominately grown in West Africa. It is only by fermenting, drying and creating chocolate that the true flavour can be identified so the selective breeding and planting process to improve yield and flavour is a long one.
We were fortunate to follow the whole cocoa trail with Neil in 2016 from plantation to factory including a visit with the British Ambassador to talk about deforestation on the east coast. We had expected that we would find poverty in the cocoa plantations. However the area was lush and green, children went to school and work on the plantations was highly sought after. This is perhaps partly down to the higher price that Malagasy cocoa carries and shows the benefit to the local population of aiming for a premium product.
The capital of Antananarivo however was very different. Like many capitals many people gravitated there and there was clearly much poverty. The Robert Chocolate factory dated from the 1940s and seemed to be one of the few signs of industry in the capital. The managerial team consisted equally of men and women and there was a clear pride in the work and the chocolate produced.
By producing in the country of origin not only were higher skilled jobs created but more of the added value was retained in the country of origin - 35% in the case of a dark chocolate bar greater tax revenues in the country of origin.
There is no social care in Madagascar and frequently children and particularly girls in vulnerable family situations find themselves with no safety net. In early 2016 moves had been made to address this by Chocolat Madagascar's production manager Nicolas and his wife Hanta - a social worker. Together with donation of a building from the church they founded a children's home for girls - Akany Avoko Faravohitra.
The police would bring girls to be placed in the home where they would be looked after, attend school and also learn practical skills in the form of basket weaving, hairdressing and now a small restaurant. We visited the home in early 2016 and have sponsored it since. We see it as an important way to support the Malagasy people.
What does the Doughnut look like for Madagascar? Using the University of Leeds Country comparison tool we are able to view Madagascar in terms of the Doughnut https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk/countries/
It can be seen that from a social perspective Madagascar falls below the Social threshold in many aspects. It is perhaps surprising that though employment is high income is low. This where schemes like Raisetrade help by allowing higher skilled, higher income jobs in the country of origin. Avoiding the historical commodity export trap with long supply chains and many middle men.
That Democratic Quality falls inside the doughnut is something experienced first hand as the first attempts to exports a finished chocolate product in the early 2000s faltered at least in part to political instability. Even today my Malagasy friends despair at the myriad of candidates in elections - 'we just hope we get a good one'
I am surprised that Social Support is shown as high as it is. This was not my brief experience when I visited in 2016. From my experience it seems that much of the social care is provided by charities like Small Steps for Africa who help us keep connected to the Akany home and provide valuable ongoing financial support and monitoring. Education also falls well below the threshold, though on my visit it did seem that most children went to school. All of the girls in the Akany Avoko Faravohitra home go to school, though schooling is not free in Madagascar. The older children that come to the home later and have missed schooling also learn craft skills.
Land-Use change is an area where Madagascar is exceeding biophysical boundaries. Illegal hard wood logging on the East coast is a problem and I will perhaps add a separate story how cacao is helping there.
But with change of land use in mind let's explore the production of Vegan Cashew milc chocolate and Cashew nut growing in the Masiloka lake region.
So... how does Vegan chocolate fit into this story?
In 2018 we were trying to develop a Vegan chocolate range and despaired at the availability of a good milk chocolate equivalent. Many vegans were younger and didn't want to eat dark chocolate which is naturally vegan. We had reached the point of starting to develop our own. With perfect timing Nicolas from Chocolat Madagascar had managed to obtain a visa to visit the UK and brought with him an experimental Vegan chocolate made with Cashew nuts grown on Madagascar.
There are no dairy herds on Madagascar, and long may it stay this way, so to produce milk chocolate it was necessary to import milk powder from New Zealand.
Cashew nut plantations were planted in small scale in the vicinity of the Masiloka great lake in the North-West of Madagascar in 1999 in a region known for degraded grass lands, renowned as infertile and even sterile. The project is a joint partnership with the WWF
The project aimed to introduce high grade and high quality cashew kernel production in Madagascar. The project has an holistic development scheme with the creation of an employment sink, social development, and environmental improvement to produce a sustainable yield of very high quality products which could be labelled Organic and sold on niche markets where the prices are less sensitive to fluctuation than on the bulk market.
The project was also seen as a possibility for carbon offsetting.
The full joint WWF report highlights many of positive benefits of this project, but here are a few points that are crucial to sustainable development…
Commitments to avoid the use of child labour or forced labour in company operations. The file for each wage earner includes a copy of his identity card (and in Madagascar, only of age people have a national identity card)
Commitments to avoid discrimination and for the fair and equitable treatment of all employees
Commitments to freedom of association and rights of assembly.
Free of charge monthly distribution of rice in the order of 9 kg of rice per family member for each wage earner. This is in the context of price instability and shortages.
Facilitation of access to medical care to wage earners and to their assignees through the medical centres and dispensaries including medical insurance. There is no NHS in Madagascar!
The building of schools, health dispensaries and clean drinking water sources.
As the Cashew Plantation has come to maturity Chocolat Madagascar become the first customer with their experiment and then introduction of their Vegan Milc chocolate made with cashew nuts, and we became their first UK customer.
The processing of the Cashew nuts is very labour intensive and small scale leading to a higher price than conventional milk chocolate. It is likely that an organic certified version of the chocolate will become available when the Cashew plantation is certified organic. Currently like the Cashew nuts the chocolate production is small scale. But it does mean that all of the constituent crops are grown, harvested and a finished product produced in Madagascar, adding value at origin.
Cashew-milc chocolate is expensive even for an artisan chocolatier. Fortunately it is matched by the taste which is truly wonderful.
I could go on for hours with this story for it has been the story of my life for the last seven years. The Akany Avoko Faravohitra home is now supported via the charity Small Steps for Africa set up by Charlotte Baker and importantly this avoids the difficulty of money transfers to Madagascar. It also provides a monitoring structure and guidance and support for the home.
I think the most important aspect for me is that our supply chains matter - they really, really matter! The historical commodity trade of crops has produced huge imbalances in food supply chains, and believe me whatever they say most buyers of large stores do not know their supply chain.
We have focussed for so long on achieving the lowest possible commodity price that we become detached from the farmers at the end of the chain. We forget how connected the world is. The Raisetrade scheme adding value at origin helps to redress this balance keeping more of the money in the country of origin and helping the social progress of the country of origin through meaningful work and in this case gender equity. It is as Neil says helping people to help themselves.
The Akany Avoko Faravohitra home helps address the issue of the education of girls. With the Vegan Cashew milc chocolate Chocolat Madagascar have shown how developing countries can not only make a high quality product, but do it in a way that helps the environment through their partnership with the WWF in Masiloka.
I hope you found this story inspiring. You can see more of our journey as we try to address issues in our supply chain, climate change and sustainability on our website. But the story really belongs to the wonderful Neil Kelsall and the Chocolat Madagascar team.