Lo­cal co­coa is set for growth

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - Shane Ni­chols

DAINTREE Es­tates’ de­vel­op­ment agenda for 2014 in­cludes a plan to open a vis­i­tor cen­tre at Pringle St, Moss­man, a fa­cil­ity to show­case its pre­mium co­coa pod-to-choco­late op­er­a­tion, in a unique cen­tre­piece that will also mean more jobs in the town.

The com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Dr Barry Kitchen said the push is on now to at­tract fund­ing for the fac­tory/show­room to en­sure this ‘‘am­bi­tious plans’’ for a pre­mium vis­i­tor cen­tre that shows the whole process from co­coa tree to pods, co­coa beans and then to choco­late.

‘‘We want to show peo­ple ex­actly what is in­volved in each step of the in­tri­cate process to pro­duce pre­mium ori­gin choco­late...from plan­ta­tion to plate as we say. We will ed­u­cate visi­tors by show­ing them the sci­ence be­hind choco­late mak­ing and ex­plain the care and pas­sion that is in­volved.’’

He added ‘‘the cen­tre will also ar­range tours to its plan­ta­tions and pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties to taste the wide range of Daintree Es­tates’ ex­quis­ite prod­ucts’’.

This at­trac­tion will be an im­por­tant mile­stone for the com­pany which has been trad­ing now for two only years. Dr Kitchen says ‘‘the com­pany has made very solid progress and ex­pects to be prof­itable in the rel­a­tively speedy time­frame for a green-field start-up, in the next three to five years. Sub­stan­tially in­creas­ing the pod sup­ply will ma­te­ri­ally ac­cel­er­ate that process.

‘‘In my view we’ve done pretty well. Our sales growth year on year has been sig­nif­i­cant. Our prod­ucts are widely dis­trib­uted through­out Aus­tralia now and we even sell prod­uct in Bel­gium and the UK. Our on-line store is also a key part of our reach to con­sumers in Aus­tralia and over­seas.’’

In a busi­ness where lead times de­pend on such things as the five-year growth to ma­tu­rity of the co­coa plants, Dr Kitchen’s most press­ing need now is to re­cruit more grow­ers so that the com­pany has ca­pac­ity to meet the de­mand for choco­late in the fu­ture, which is al­ready run­ning at around twice the avail­able pod out­put now. ‘‘ We need more young trees,’’ he says, ‘‘be­cause it takes five years to reach ma­tu­rity. So we need more grow­ers. De­mand al­ready out­strips sup­ply.’’

Ini­tial tri­als be­gan early this cen­tury and while Dr Kitchen’s team has over­come a huge amount of tech­ni­cal is­sues in pro­duc­ing the co­coa pods to a world-beat­ing stan­dard, that’s only part of the process. The com­pany is re­mark­able in that it is a ver­ti­cally in­te­grated sup­ply chain that takes the prod­uct from plan­ta­tion seedling, to nurs­ery, to har­vest, to choco­late bar, to mar­ket.

‘‘What we’re do­ing is pretty unique in the world,’’ Dr Kitchen, a bio­chemist and food sci­en­tist, says. ‘‘But we’ve still got a lot of work to do in the key con­ver­sion process from pods to dry fer­mented co­coa beans.’’

Con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing about the prod­uct from seed to shop is a strat­egy he holds dear. The com­pany has spent a lot of time and money per­fect­ing the co­coa bean flavour and qual­ity along with the tricky con­ver­sion of the beans to a pre­mium choco­late.

‘‘We have de­vel­oped our own know-how and IP in each step and it’s how well you con­vert the pod to the fer­mented dry bean then gen­tly roast it that ei­ther makes or breaks your abil­ity to pro­duce ex­quis­ite choco­late.’’

Feed­back from the mar­ket­place has con­firmed that this choco­late is a top-end prod­uct by world stan­dards. That’s why the world comes knock­ing for this sin­gle ori­gin bean whose prove­nance is a known fact.

‘‘Peo­ple th­ese days want to know where their food is com­ing from, to know it’s spe­cial and that it has been made with the ut­most care. This bean is grown right next to su­gar cane and we only use raw su­gar sourced from the lo­cal Mill in our choco­late – again, some­thing quite unique. The same farm­ers that grow the co­coa also grow the su­gar cane. This all hap­pens in a re­gion that boasts the World Her­itage-listed Daintree rain­forests.’’

All of th­ese things mat­ter to global choco­late con­nois­seurs. That’s why the com­pany uses the ti­tle ‘‘es­tate’’. Th­ese are not large plan­ta­tions but quite small pock­ets of land, bou­tique parcels of agri­cul­ture from which the beans are iden­ti­fied, sep­a­rated and la­belled. Beans from each area taste dif­fer­ent to oth­ers.

It’s such a rar­efied mar­ket that the ex­act place of ori­gin and date of the har­vest is in­cluded on the la­bel, as if it was a vin­tage grape. ‘‘It’s about con­nect­ing the con­sumer with the farmer, and that’s ex­actly what we’re do­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘Our es­tates are like vine­yards. Grow­ers look af­ter their trees like a dairy farmer cares for his cows,’’ Dr Kitchen says.

‘‘So it takes a cer­tain type of farmer to grow co­coa and we are lucky to have such a ded­i­cated team of grow­ers be­hind us.’’

Plots of 3-5 ha can be han­dled by a cou­ple of peo­ple with the know-how and ‘‘who are pre­pared to put the time in’’. In con­trast, big plan­ta­tions in Malaysia and In­done­sia are of­ten as large as 50 ha. Break­ing up pro­duc­tion into small lots – of­ten idle pock­ets that cane farm­ers can’t get a har­vester into – is also a cy­clone dam­age mit­i­ga­tion strat­egy.

The grow­ers are val­ued part­ners in Daintree Es­tates. ‘‘Our strat­egy has been to make the grow­ers part of the com­pany as share­hold­ers and em­bed them in the busi­ness, so they share the up­side of the busi­ness, rather than just have them sup­pli­ers of co­coa pods,’’ Dr Kitchen says.

Mean­while, a re­port re­leased last week called ‘‘Com­mer­cial­is­ing co­coa grow­ing in North Queens­land’’ by the fed­eral Ru­ral In­dus­tries Re­search & De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion said a north Queens­land co­coa in­dus­try could be worth po­ten­tially $10-$12 mil­lion a year based on the pro­duc­tion of pre­mium fer­mented dried beans. It would be at a scale of 1000 hectares pro­duc­ing up to 3000 tonnes of dried bean.

‘‘This vol­ume of pro­duc­tion can be eas­ily ab­sorbed into the coca mar­ket and only par­tially meet the in­creas­ing de­mand for high qual­ity fer­mented co­coa bean,’’ the re­port said.

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