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How COVID-19 prevented our indigenous chocolate bar from going international

Published by The Nation on Sun, 21 Feb 2021

Oba Dokun Thompson is the traditional ruler of Eti-Oni, host of the oldest cocoa plantation in Nigeria, located in Atakumosa East Local Government Area, Osun State. Apart from being the organiser of the annual cocoa festival in Nigeria and the UK, he has been at the forefront of promoting cocoa in the Diaspora. He launched Eti-Oni Chocolate in 2017 in partnership with Duffys Fine Chocolate of Lincolnshire. In this interview with GBENGA ADERANTI, he talks about what government can do to revive the once thriving cocoa farming in the country, the partnership with Duffys Fine Chocolate of Lincolnshire, Cocoa Jones, UK, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected cocoa business.In 2016, Eti-Oni celebrated 120 years of cocoa production. The vision then was to transform Eti-Oni into a fully developed town with functional cocoa processing plants for premium chocolate products and a tourist destination for its environs. How far have you gone with this'The overall vision of the Cocoa Renaissance Initiative, which we began in 2014 and opened to the world in 2016 as it relates to Eti-Oni, is very much on track. It is a 20-year development plan with short, medium and long term goals to transform Eti-Oni into a sustainable model smart town. Part of the short term goal was to create the awareness and understanding of the origin and traditions of cocoa as we work towards creating the cocoa culture that will bridge the gap between production and consumption in a manner that we as a people can begin to appreciate and work on value addition of our agricultural produce to generate wealth to transform our communities. The idea behind cocoa processing for us is to build the economic model that will fund all our developmental initiatives to achieve sustainability. And as you know, tourism can also be a byproduct of cocoa production and we have done a lot in that area with the annual Cocoa Festival where we have thousands of visitors come to Eti-Oni to celebrate with us, learn about cocoa and its derivatives as well as enjoy the beauty of our serene and very green environment. It is a continuous process and a journey that will go on even after the initial 20 years.How competitive is Eti-Oni cocoa in the world market'The interesting thing about cocoa, as it is currently classified, is that it is based on countries and not the actual region of origin. The Premium Chocolate industry which is relatively new, less than 15 years old, and still evolving, is what is changing the narrative and putting value to cocoa origins based on the unique and diverse flavours from varying regions. There are also considerations of transparency, traceability and ethical issues in the production and supply chain. In all of these, Eti-Oni Cocoa is doing very well and we continue to let people around the world know the value of our cocoa which has floral and nutty notes with a hint of warm spice and definitely a delight to have.What are the challenges the farmers in the town are facing'There are several challenges around lack of social and physical infrastructure which are also discouraging to the next generation of farmers. But over the years, what we started in 2014 is to return self-worth and dignity to the farmers, and we are looking at showing them how to do things differently with a new mindset.The past one year has also been a great challenge all over the world with COVID-19. In addition, we had extended periods of rainfall which created swollen shoot disease and reduced the normal production output considerably. Now that the main crop harvest is over, the second wave of COVID-19 has kicked in with a new variant, and the lockdown in Europe is affecting the supply chain which is putting pressure on the exporters and farmers are needing to sell with minimal offers so they are not left with the cocoa because the light crop season is in another two months to prevent a glut in the industry.How much support are you getting from the Osun State Government'Osun State Government has been part of the Cocoa Renaissance Initiative from 2016, providing different types and levels of support depending on the programme we are having. They have provided resources for farmers training, encouraged and supported us during the Cocoa Festival at Eti-Oni and Eko Chocolate Show in Lagos. We are also in discussion on the issue around infrastructure provision to ensure optimization of our eco-tourism project as well as ease in movement of produce from the farms to the market.What do you think the government can do to develop the settlement'There is a lot the government is doing already but with limited resources, there is only so much that can be done. I believe policies should be relaxed a bit more to encourage more participation by the private sector. This will not only reduce bureaucracies, it will speed up decision making for implementation of several initiatives that can turn things around.As an African monarch, what kind of treatment do you get in the United Kingdom'I have family and residency status in the UK and I am able to use that opportunity to develop and nourish friendships and partnerships that have been useful in getting our message to the outside world. I would like to describe the Diaspora as perhaps the largest resource Nigeria as a country has in terms of foreign reserve, and if we are serious about development, we need to seriously look for ways of tapping into that resource for the know-how, the expertise, including finance, to turn things around for good.On our part, we have a non-profit making organisation, Friends of Eti-Oni, registered in the UK, and we organise the Annual Royal Cocoa Festival Dinner in London every October. It is in its 5th edition and creates a platform for cultural exchange, bilateral trade, partnerships, exchange of ideas and to celebrate one another. We are also exploring several relationships across the Caribbean, South America and Asia all to change the West African cocoa narrative from an exploitative one to a more integrated one with shared value options.How receptive is Eti-Oni bar in the UK'We launched the Bar in 2017 at the first edition of the Friends of Eti-Oni Dinner we held then, and it was in partnership with Duffys Fine Chocolate of Lincolnshire. We have been doing it in small batches to slowly gain the required reputation and market entry. We were supposed to go into full commercialisation last February but for COVID-19. We are looking to see how to get that on course now by April 2021, hoping things would have improved by the end of February.Duffy is a multi-award winning chocolate maker who makes beautiful premium chocolate, using the best cocoa from different origins around the world. And our cocoa is not any different with its own unique characteristics and has been well received so far. We also had another Chocolate company, Cocoa Jones, UK, using our beans for their premium limited edition chocolates, and some requests for our beans by a few other chocolate makers.What do you think the government can do to revive the once thriving cocoa farming in the country'A lot is already being done. CBN has created several financial products to support and boost production output through the commercial banks. NEXIM Bank has also provided a lot of support in the area of export and working in the area of ensuring that the processing capacity can be fully utilised. We, on our part, are working on the area of awareness that will create the culture of consumption, as that is what will give confidence to the farmers that they will find buyers for their produce if they work on producing more. It also encourages partnerships between the farmers and Chocolate farmers that will lead to the farmers understanding the needs of a chocolate maker to produce the best quality beans possible. Today, we have a number of artisan chocolate makers, and the government agencies need to recognise the difference between an industrial process and artisan manufacturing and ease the manner in which they create obstacles and barriers for these SMEs in being able to label their products to be accepted on shop shelves in the country. In the UK, all permits are local; why can we not do the same here' Also, there is no such thing as NAFDAC creating a problem for anyone to get their products into the market. I think that is where the government is failing, and no economy will thrive if the SMEs are being choked with heavy regulations.Nigeria is the 4th largest cocoa producing country in the world, yet we have fewer chocolate and beverage companies in the country. What could have accounted for this'Like I said in one of my earlier responses, we do not have a culture of cocoa consumption. To us, raw cocoa beans is a finished product and we export perhaps 90% of our output as that. Meanwhile, the ratio of the value of raw cocoa beans to a finished product is about 1 : 20 or in some cases a lot more. There are several ways of consuming cocoa not just as a confectionery, beverage or as a cosmetic product. It can also be used in the pharmaceutical industries. There is education, research, tourism, entertainment and merchandising that can all be spin-offs from it.With the advent of AfCFTA, a market size of 1.3 billion people has been created, and that is going to continue to grow based on the projected population of Nigeria and African nations. So we are at a time when opportunities are going to be opening up and we need to take advantage of this. We are going to need to be highly creative and innovative creating our own different products that will be embraced by the people.Yes, finance, standardization, etc are challenges, but with focus and determination, the story will definitely change. We just have to continue to say it so it will resonate with the people for clearer and better understanding.You are advocating for better conditions for women in the cocoa industry. What exactly are you doing for women'When we say women in cocoa, we are not just talking about Eti-Oni but generally in cocoa producing regions across the globe. Culturally, we as a people have never undermined or discriminated against women and to a great extent have equal access. But there are certain areas women are definitely stronger than men. The traditional structure has always recognised the roles of internal affairs, commerce, trade and even finance as customary to women, and the natural thing is to help in projecting this better than it is done today.Because we could not hold the Cocoa Festival in 2020 due to Covid-19, we had an empowerment programme which was also supported by Ajike People Support Centre whose founder is the First Lady of Kwara State, Her Excellency Ambassador (Dr) Mrs Olufolake Abdulrazaq. The idea was to provide tools and equipment for some farmers, and most of the beneficiaries were women who were provided with hairdressing equipment, sewing machines, grinders, popcorn making machine, makeup artist kits, etc to supplement their earning from cocoa farming and trade and also give them an opportunity to earn money all-round the year.How has the pandemic affected Nigeria and other cocoa planting nations in Africa'It has been a challenging past one year and the main problem had to do with the ability to fulfill supply contracts. The supply chain was seriously affected because of lockdowns across the globe for movement of produce from farms to warehouses and subsequently for export. Now that this pandemic has extended into 2021, the contracts are also on shaky grounds. In Nigeria, for instance, we have issues of erratic dollar exchange rates, security challenges, uninspired buyers, etc.In one of your previous interviews, you said the average age of a cocoa farmer is about 45-years-old, and every cocoa producing region is fast losing the next generation of farmers. What are you doing, especially in Eti-Oni, to make sure that cocoa plantations do not die'For me, sustainability in production is about the human aspect of any process, and that is the area that is least considered. Every year, we see the farming population decrease. Even when they are still within the community, they do not want to go to the farm because farming is seen as a vocation for poor, uneducated people, which leads to further unhealthy and wretched existence. At Eti-Oni Development Group through the Cocoa Festival and other programmes and initiatives we have round the year, we are making the farmers realise that they can take pride in what they do and celebrate them so they know they are appreciated and not forgotten. The next generation is also being encouraged to understand that cocoa farming is a serious business or enterprise that requires education, and when properly done and the real value harnessed, it will lead to a better lifestyle and condition of living. Only when they see their environment being transformed with the necessary social services and infrastructure in place and know that it was as a result of their produce, only then will they want to do more and actually do more. That is what our vision of transforming Eti-Oni into a sustainable model smart town is all about.
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