2 Nov 2023

Cacao ambassador on a mission in the Pacific

3:01 pm on 2 November 2023
Oonagh Browne (left) the self-styled Cacao Ambassador has spent the last four years working to correct what she sees as the injustice shown cacao farmers in the Pacific.

Oonagh Browne (left) the self-styled 'Cacao Ambassador' has spent the last four years working to correct what she sees as the injustice shown cacao farmers in the Pacific. Photo: facebook.com/thecacaoambassador

Irishwoman Oonagh Browne, who has lived in New Zealand for a number of years, wants to correct what she sees as the injustice shown cacao farmers in the Pacific.

She ran a cafe called the She Universe in Christchurch but four years ago sold up and since has styled herself the 'Cacao Ambassador', focussing on the disconnect between the farmers and the love that much of the rest of the world has for chocolate.

"The Cacao Ambassador, which is a very different focus, is really about being on the ground in the Pacific sharing with cacao farmers, actually, the crop that they grow and how they can consume it locally, and how they can make local cacao products that don't want any special equipment. And from that, developing the industry further so we can bring high quality care products into New Zealand," Browne said.

"So we can also create new markets. So yeah, I've been deep in that for the last four years."

Cacao beans freshly laid out from being fermented, now to be sun dried.

Cacao beans freshly laid out from being fermented, now to be sun dried. Photo: thecacaoambassador

She has spent much of that time in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, including attending the Bougainville Chocolate Festival in September for the past two years.

Brown points out that the cacao produced in these countries typically garners the lowest price and much of that is down to the local infrastructure.

"Cacao farms are not sophisticated, they are remote, there is no power, a lot of the communities don't have access to good roads, no infrastructure, and they're just used to selling their beans to what we call the bulk market," she said.

She said they face a very rudimentary environment where pricing is unpredictable. And this is a major problem for those communities, "it's their main cash crop. So they will grow their food, their vegetables, and cacao is their main cash crop, which will provide them with income for school fees and basics that they need. So it's one of the most fundamental cash crops in countries like Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, Solomon Islands."

Browne said she is working to get better prices for them.

She said after the bulk market the next level is the boutique market which pays better prices.

But Browne points out that because the farmers have a disconnect from the crop, in that they have not been consuming it themselves, "it's impossible for them to know what are quality beans for that boutique market".

She said as the Cacao Ambassador her first priority has been to show the farmers how to prepare the cacao beans, how to roast them, and how to use them to make products like Milo.

"And actually have it as a fundamental food for the family and sell it in the local market. So, they start to become connected to the crop. That in itself creates a huge change in terms of their connection, their understanding, knowing what quality is but also being able to consume it and sell it locally."

Browne said this year's Chocolate Festival in Bougainville was really exciting compared with last year, with local products being produced, whether it was very rudimentary cacao powder to actually a really nice chocolate being produced.

She said the situation is a lot different in Samoa where "they consume cacao locally, they get one of the highest prices in the world because it's part of the local culture".

"It's sold at every market in Samoa, whereas the rest of the world and the rest of the Pacific, they don't consume their own cacao. So when you start seeing that happening there's a huge potential."

Cacoa beans

Cacoa beans Photo: Credit Savai'i Koko based in Samoa

'It takes time'

The cacao ambassador said it will take time for these changes to come.

"The most important thing is having the biggest picture of what's possible, the steps that are needed. Aongside that, creating the markets," Browne said.

She wants to see leaders emerge and for communities to show the way, creating a chain reaction in the whole country.

"When you have communities who start consuming it, who start increasing the quality of consistently produced cacao, and we find markets for those communities, and those communities are receiving a consistent price and able to reinvest in their farms and their infrastructure and have stability, then we start seeing a change in a whole country," she said.

"But it takes time, it takes times for the change, for the culture also to change."

According to online statistics website Statista Pacific countries ranked among the top 10 for cacao production in the Asia Pacific region in 2021.

2021 cacao production in Asia Pacific (metric tonnes)

  • Indonesia 728,046
  • Papua New Guinea 42,000
  • India 27,000
  • Phillipines 10,000
  • Solomon Islands 5,000
  • Vanuatu 1,485
  • Sri Lanka 1,348
  • Malaysia 537
  • Samoa 481
  • Timor Leste 174