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