The Chocolate Revolution: Vanuatu Aelan Chocolate Factory



Stop Press! Vanuatu now has its very own chocolate factory! From cocoa beans grown in Vanuatu, the chocolate will be made, packaged and sold entirely in Vanuatu. The brainchild of Sandrine Wallez, long-term resident of Vanuatu and director of ACTIV, the chocolate factory will pave a new road for local Vanuatu growers to get more vatu for their beans.

The acronym ‘ACTIV’ stands for ‘Alternative Communities Trade In Vanuatu’ and ACTIV was created with the main purpose of helping communities to develop their local economies through building their agricultural and commercial capabilities. The idea first came to Sandrine while looking to stock more local produce in her Fair Trade shop in Port Vila. “While networking with local farmers and artisans, I discovered that many local farmers lacked the information necessary to take their products successfully to the market,” she says. Not being a woman to sit down and wait for things to happen, Sandrine decided to start an organisation that would provide the knowledge and avenues for local communities to develop their own micro-economies.

Six years later, ACTIV has undertaken many projects, from making solar power available to villages, to helping farmers set up beehives for honey production, and disseminating information on crops and agricultural techniques.


The ACTIV vision

The ACTIV centre, located at the Stella Mare subdivision, against a background of tropical forest, has been gradually expanding to accommodate the full scope of its vision. The centre has several fares, all built in traditional style using local materials and joined by lovely pathways fringed by lush gardens. The centre comprises the ACTIV shop, handicraft centre and chocolate factory, all set up to help local producers sell and improve their products.

The ACTIV shop and exhibition area showcases products from outer island producers, from local honey to woven mats, paintings, carvings and handmade soaps and oils. The newly complete Handicraft Centre holds ten stalls on the first floor providing a space for producers to showcase and sell their products. Upstairs, a workshop area is set up to facilitate training that will improve the quality and choice of products as well as serving as a showroom where producers can interact with visitors and demonstrate how local handicrafts are made. “We also plan to extend our training to other areas that will benefit the whole community such as good governance, women’s rights and relevant social and community issues. In addition, the idea is to have a space where producers can liaise with buyers directly. For example, resorts, restaurants or individuals will be able to communicate with the producers and place orders for specially-made arts and crafts,” explains Sandrine.


Aelan Chocolate Makers

After years researching and working with local cocoa bean growers, Sandrine’s dream, Vanuatu’s very own chocolate factory, is now a reality. The chocolate factory is housed in two separate buildings and follows the traditional artisan way of making chocolate. “All the equipment, sourced from different countries around the world, is traditional, sometimes antique, equipment used in artisanal chocolate making. The chocolate is manufactured the artisanal way, without additives or preservatives and without the use of milk. It will be 70% pure cocoa with the only two ingredients being cocoa beans and sugar,” explains Sandrine.

The first stage of the chocolate making process takes place in one building, which contains the equipment for the roasting, winnowing (sorting out the husk) and grinding processes.

The second step is housed in another building where the crude chocolate is processed in the ‘Melangueur’, a big mixer with a granite stone that mixes the cocoa paste and sugar before reaching the ‘conche’ where the flavour is developed. The delicious, 70% dark cocoa chocolate is now ready to be shaped into chocolate bars and packed in fun and colourful wrappers designed by local artist Julie Sauerwein. The chocolate is sold in 100 gram bars and small bite-size 5 gram bars and there are different varieties according to the origins of the cocoa beans. So you may prefer Ambryn chocolate to a Malekula Bar – or perhaps Epi is your favourite, but no doubt there is an excuse to try them all!

smvila-island-life-activ-centre-14To inaugurate the factory’s opening, Vanuatu’s first chocolate competition was organised in October with invited chocolate makers coming from overseas to judge the quality of the chocolate. The main cocoa producers in Vanuatu are the islands of Malekula, Epi, Santo and Ambrym. The competition aimed to provide local growers with an opportunity to find where their cocoa beans stand in terms of quality and how to improve it.

Vanuatu cocoa growers are mostly families practicing small-scale agriculture in the islands. Most growers have smallholdings of 300 to 1000 trees with a few bigger plantations of 8000 trees; tiny plantations when compared to the rest of the world. The growing of cocoa has been an agricultural and economic revolution for islands such as Epi.

Joseph Merip first started planting trees in 2007. Now, his plantation has 8000 trees and he is in the process of planting another 3000. “Our family had some land, I heard that cocoa was a good crop so we started planting trees in 2007. By 2010, we were selling our beans.” Joseph worked in the timber industry and started his plantation by slowly investing his wage in buying and planting cocoa trees. Nowadays, looking after the plantation together with his wife and children is his full time job. The plantation also employs another dozen or so people, depending on the work required. In 2009, Joseph and other farmers created the Epi Cocoa Association with six growers. Now, the association has over 100 growers with an average of 1000 trees per farmer. “Cocoa is a crop that produces beans all year around,” explains Joseph. “The average 1000-tree farmer can produce from ten to twenty 55kg bags of beans per month. Each 55kg bag averages a revenue from 8,000 to 11,000vt to the farmer,” he explains.

For the outer islands, that is an outstanding source of income. The process, however, it is not as simple as it appears.

Farmers not only grow the cocoa but, after harvesting, need to ferment and dry the beans. These are complicated processes that set the quality of the beans and ultimately, the chocolate. Once the cocoa is harvested, the seedpod is broken to extract the beans inside. The beans are then fermented in an environment with a stable temperature and conditions before being dried. Many things can go wrong during these processes, especially for small growers in the islands with minimal facilities. If temperature is too low during drying, the beans can become mouldy. Too high and beans could be dry on the outside but mouldy on the inside. The storage and shipment of beans cause further complications when it comes to maintaining quality. “At the moment the quality of Vanuatu cocoa varies vastly between growers,” explains Sandrine. “The aim of this competition and the training that we have undertaken for the past years, is to help growers understand and master the process so they can achieve higher quality cocoa.”


More vatu for your beans

Cocoa beans in Vanuatu have been, until now, exported to Singapore to be sold in the bulk market at the bottom end of the price scale. Vanuatu cocoa growers are currently making from 150vt to 200vt per kilo of beans. For the last three years, ACTIV has been working with ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) and PARDI (Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative) programs to help improve the production and quality of cocoa in the islands, improve market opportunities for local growers and facilitate access to premium markets. “The chocolate factory will create a niche market in Vanuatu for local growers. We also aim to expand this niche market overseas by facilitating communication channels between local growers and artisan chocolate makers in Australia and New Zealand, putting buyers and producers in contact with each other,” Sandrine explains.

Once all systems are go, Alean Chocolate will be able to process around fifteen tons of cocoa per year, producing around ten tons of chocolate. Although cocoa production is still not at that level, Sandrine believes that with training and a bigger and more lucrative market for the beans, production will rise.

For local producers, this is all great news. “The chocolate factory is great for Vanuatu because it provides a finished product entirely made here,” says Joseph. “For the growers, that means that we will be able to get a high price for our beans.”


ACTIV is located at the end of the Second Lagoon on the Stella Mare subdivision; about two kilometres up the round-the-island road, just after the turn off to Club Hippique. Visitors are welcome to the ACTIV centre, open six days a week where they will be able to purchase local arts and crafts, meet the local producers and take a tour of the chocolate factory to see how chocolate is made. For more information go to, email [email protected] or phone 22554.