“We live in a world of disaster,” states Moli Lui flatly, standing underneath the shade and leathery oblong pods of a cocoa tree on his sprawling farm on the thick and leafy patch of green that is Malo Island in the Northern reaches of Vanuatu. “When disaster happens, I want to be able to deliver help to the people in this community the same week, rather than waiting for aid agencies.”
Moli’s stock and trade is cocoa, but he sees a larger purpose in harvesting the fruit pods from Malo that will eventually end up as a smooth delicacy that has been scored highly in international competitions in the past. “In five years, I want to start a community project that focuses on education, health and religion. And when a cyclone comes, I want to be able to distribute rice to the community immediately.”
Moli’s thriving cocoa farm deep in the wild resplendence of rural Vanuatu has grown and thrived over the past several years – even in the shadow of COVID-19 pandemic – through hard work, focus, pride and a collaborative spirit borne from his training on cocoa propagation, grafting, drying, fermentation and processing that was supported by the SPC project Aligning genetic resources, production, and post-harvest systems to market opportunities for Pacific Island and Australian cocoa.
The cocoa project, funded by ACIAR (Australia Centre for International Agricultural Research) has worked with Vanuatu-based NGO Activ and Vanuatu Agriculture Research and Training Centre (VARTC) on cocoa farm soil sampling and testing, training and cocoa variety propagation since 2016. Though the project is coming to a close in 2022, Moli and other cocoa farmers in Vanuatu continue to thrive post-COVID using their newfound skills and new infrastructure and equipment provided by the initiative, such as solar cocoa pod dryers that replaced old fire-based dryers.
Moli’s farm is organic, and he has been able to keep up with the cocoa demand due to a strong affinity for keeping his soil and land healthy. “I don’t need machines for the farm,” he declares, “I only need me and the trees.”
Before COVID, chocolate from Moli’s trees was rated as one of the twenty best in the world at a competition in Paris in 2017, and also scored highly in other competitions in Japan and Australia. When the pandemic swept across the Pacific like wildfire, however, and cocoa exports came to a standstill, he still found a way to thrive by working with ACTIV to process his pods and then selling the chocolate in simple packaging to local Vanuatu communities.
Now that the region has reopened, Moli will expand again, reconnecting with export markets. “I am going to Australia this year for a chocolate competition,” he says, as he seeks to gain back customers lost due to two-years of shutdowns. He is also working on expanding his cocoa base and chocolate varieties. “I am looking at growing new beans, like the Limio variety, and extending cocoa genetics so that I can produce good chocolate with more cocoa, using 90 percent cacao and only 10 percent sugar.” Eventually, he will expand even further, growing coconut in a mixed culture farm that he says can produce between 300 – 500 kilogrammes of cocoa and 5 tonnes of coconut per year by 2024-25.
Though these new economic opportunities are attractive, Moli doesn’t talk them up long, tracking back quickly to community empowerment as he shows off a clutch of newly fermented and dried beans in a long tray under his new solar dryer. “I would like to help people with disabilities,” he declares. “We can go island to island here in Vanuatu – Malekula, Epi, Santo and more. If they have a cyclone or disaster, and we don’t have one here in Malo, I can help.”
With Moli, cocoa is more than a livelihood – it is a means for securing Vanuatu’s future through advocacy: care and commitment to the communities that is rooted in Vanuatu’s rich soil and enduring resilience.