Chang­ing choco­late

Kiwi Kathy John­stone, 32, is the co-founder of Mirzam, a di­rect trad­ing craft choco­late fac­tory in Dubai’s Alserkel Av­enue

Good (UAE) - - THE GOOD LIFE -

You come from a purely busi­ness back­ground. How did you end up cre­at­ing a choco­late fac­tory?

Mirzam came about be­cause of a long-term ob­ses­sion with choco­late, from both my­self and the other co­founders. We had trav­elled the world look­ing for good choco­late and buy­ing a lot of choco­late. And as the in­dus­try has changed in re­cent years it has be­come pos­si­ble for craft scale mak­ers to ex­ist on their own as a busi­ness, and that means there is even bet­ter qual­ity choco­late from the farmer through to the wrap­per.

What do you mean when you talk about craft choco­late?

None of the process is cheap­ened by us­ing fer­men­ta­tion, or child labour, or power roast­ing the beans – it’s about get­ting the best prod­uct in the best way pos­si­ble. To get the ca­pac­ity needed to make a profit on sell­ing cheap bars of choco­late in su­per­mar­kets, large man­u­fac­tur­ers need to do things at a scale that means cor­ners are cut and things are done badly. As the craft mar­ket has picked up though, the tech­nol­ogy has be­come avail­able that al­lows us to cre­ate our bars 30kg at a time, as op­posed to a tonne a time. Over the past decade there have been more and more geeks like us mak­ing small-scale pro­duc­tion equip­ment out of other ma­chines – our bean roaster is adapted from a Turk­ish cof­fee roaster, for ex­am­ple. And as the level of geek­ing has im­proved all of these sys­tems, it has al­lowed us to fi­nally be here.

How dif­fi­cult has it been to set up in a way that means you trade di­rectly and fairly with your ca­cao farm­ers?

If you are work­ing di­rectly with farm­ers then they are lot of cer­tifi­cates needed to

send things out of coun­tries, they need to be ap­proved by gov­ern­ment author­i­ties and the small farm­ers just haven’t had the ca­pac­ity to do that. Now though, there are lo­gis­tics com­pa­nies spring­ing up to help small-scale farm­ers so it’s be­com­ing more vi­able. You don’t want to mi­cro­man­age the farm­ers as what they do with the beans is down to their own im­pres­sion of their har­vest, but they do need to be picked from the trees at a cer­tain point, fer­mented in a cer­tain way, so we work with them to get that right.

How does that process work?

The farm­ers we have cho­sen to work with are all lo­cated along­side the mar­itime spice route, and that is our con­nec­tion to the Dubai spice trad­ing his­tory. So while most of the world’s co­coa pro­duc­tion hap­pens in Latin Amer­ica and West Africa, we buy our co­coa from the other side of the strip, start­ing at East Africa across to Pa­pua New Guinea. We also in­clude Mada­gas­car, Viet­nam, Indonesia and In­dia, and if you added up all of their ca­cao it would rep­re­sent just one or two per cent of world­wide pro­duc­tion. Some of these plan­ta­tions are only one or two acres and their en­tire pro­duc­tion might be half a tonne for a year. If it doesn’t rain this year there will be no co­coa for us next year. So we fo­cus on very di­rect, as­sisted trade and fair trade and spend a lot of time on ship­ping, lo­gis­tics, sup­port­ing the farm­ers and get­ting fer­men­ta­tion right. We will of­ten work with a farmer for two or three rounds where the fer­men­ta­tion is not great be­fore we get to the point we want, and for each batch we get we do be­tween six and ten pro­duc­tions to test what we should be do­ing with them go­ing for­ward. At ev­ery stage there is a lot of ef­fort. For craft choco­late you can­not cut any cor­ners as it will cre­ate a prob­lem at the end. If the re­la­tion­ship with the farmer is not good then that cre­ates a prob­lem. If it doesn’t rain then that cre­ates a prob­lem. If the han­dlers for ship­ping don’t look af­ter the ca­cao prop­erly then that is a prob­lem. We can­not hide any­thing as we are not adding any­thing that can cover up mis­takes. We want this whole process to be trans­par­ent so peo­ple can see and un­der­stand that the qual­ity of our prod­uct is be­cause of our good re­la­tion­ships right at the be­gin­ning with peo­ple who trade and grow ca­cao.

You’ve also cho­sen to work with a va­ri­ety of lo­cal artists on your pack­ag­ing. How did that process come about?

The found­ing Mirzam team all have arts back­grounds, so we wanted to work with re­gion­ally based artists as much as we could in de­vel­op­ing in­stal­la­tions, projects and pack­ag­ing, as well as our work for the wrap­pers. We have worked very suc­cess­fully with Aziz Al Iqbal, a Pak­istani artist based in Qatar who spe­cialises in Is­lamic pat­terns, and we cre­ated a bar for Tash­keel and an­other for Art Dubai. For Valen­tine’s Day, we did a bar in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mariam Al Thani, and the pro­ceeds of that bar go to­wards the World Wildlife Fund and Emi­rates Wildlife So­ci­ety to sup­port bio­di­ver­sity. That’s go­ing to be an on­go­ing project, so ev­ery quar­ter we will de­velop some­thing new.

Do you see the fac­tory as play­ing a role in ed­u­cat­ing con­sumers?

Ab­so­lutely. The gov­ern­ment of Dubai has made very big strides in en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to eat well and this has helped our cus­tomers to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate what they are buy­ing from us, but ed­u­ca­tion has al­ways been a mas­sive part of our plan. We run tours, we have tast­ing work­shops twice a day, we have a big fo­cus on pro­vid­ing as much in­for­ma­tion and be­ing as clear as pos­si­ble about what we are do­ing. We launched be­cause we were ob­sessed with the whole story of the craft move­ment, the farm­ers and get­ting bet­ter qual­ity choco­late. But we’ve found a lot of peo­ple here feel the same.

“it’s about get­ting the best prod­uct in the best way pos­si­ble”

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