In tough moments, we all like to resort to chocolate. But the sweet power of cacao and the satisfying snap of a chocolate bar can also generate much-needed social impact and improve people's lives – as entrepreneur Brian Atkin and chocolatier Jessica Pedemont have shown through their South Pacific Cacao enterprise.
In 2014, Atkin was working on cervical-cancer prevention projects with his mother on the Solomon Islands. The initiatives included rolling out the HPV vaccination which helps prevent cervical cancer.
As Atkin was finishing up, his cousin approached him in Honiara because their relatives in the region needed help. Their family in Makira lived in an economically deprived village and were in desperate need of opportunities. He was told, "All your cousins, they don't have money, they can't send their kids to school, they don't have clothes for their kids."
Was there a way Atkin could help? His background was in IT, but he gradually realised the solution was a sweet one: chocolate. Really good chocolate.
Local smallholder farmers supply around 6,000 tonnes of cacao to the bulk market in Asia where it's turned into cocoa butter for cosmetics or mass-market confectionery. "They just make such a small amount from that," he says.
Unlike supermarket-quality chocolate (which can be cheapened with hydrogenated vegetable fats and other cocoa butter substitutes), he realised that high-quality, single-origin cacao used for premium chocolate could earn farmers significantly more.
"Little did I know how difficult it was," he says. After all, he was maintaining a full-time IT job in Australia while trying to help develop an artisan cacao market in the Solomon Islands region – an experience that nearly left him bankrupt. Luckily, his intense dedication paid off. By forming Makira Gold, he could help farmers grow higher-quality cacao, and give them access to better facilities and markets for their products.
The result? Farmers are earning double the amount they get from the bulk market: $3,400 a tonne instead of $1,700 a tonne.
Through the South Pacific Cacao social enterprise, he runs with Pedemont, he's also putting chocolate from this region on the map, creating more demand and economic opportunities for farmers in the area.
"They've got the quality of ingredients… that deserve an international stage," says Pedemont. She's lived on a chocolate plantation in Hawaii, worked for one of the most expensive chocolate brands in Switzerland, and runs the Chocolate Artisan store alongside South Pacific Cacao's shopfront in Sydney's Haberfield. She knows her stuff.
The pastry chef has also spent time in the kitchen with respected industry figures like Stefano Manfredi and Charlie Trotter. But her self-described title as a "cacao evangelist" might sum her up best. When she talks about ingredients from the Pacific, it deeply personalises the story of the farmer who grew the beans that flavoured your chocolate bar.