SWISS CHOCOLATIER, STELLA BERNRAIN IS THE 1st COMPANY TO MAKE CHOCOLATES FROM INDIAN CACAO
By Devaki Bhooshan
It was all bitter when she began. Stock markets the world over were about to crash, developing countries had restricted international trade in agri products, food grain prices were soaring, demands for chocolates were edgy, and criticism of contract farming and neo liberal market integration were trending. Many of those clouds have dissipated now and the star shines bright—Stella Bernrain. This nine decades old Swiss chocolate company has added flavours in the life of Kerala based cocoa cultivators by its integrative global approach. In return, it has received moderately mild, fruity aroma of Indian origin for part of its extensive range of products—almost 1,500 brands long and growing by 30 every year.
Stella’s go-India project began 10 years ago, when its CEO, Monica Müller, decided to procure raw cocoa from Indian farmers for new premium products. This was not an easy decision to take as the Indian market had no grading system in place for horticulture products. She had many local challenges waiting in India also. Neither the farmers nor the export regulations of India were in her favour. Quality issues that she wished to negotiate had many externalities including paucity of knowledge, orientation and attitude among the targeted farmers. She did not have many options as Kerala was the only state that grew cocoa, and there too, the crop had limited stakes. She could not have expected similar commitment from the cultivators, which one finds in Latin America where a large number of planters are dependent solely on cocoa for their livelihood. Yet, Stella was determined to negotiate and integrate.
“Being staunch supporters of ethical, sustainable farming, ecological production and fairness in trade, we regularly provide financial assistance to farmer cooperatives of cocoa-producing underdeveloped and developing countries. We finance farmers to help them buy transport vehicles, install cocoa nurseries, and procure fermentation and drying equipment. We also hold in-field training sessions for farmers on fermentation and drying of cocoa beans. Moreover, we conduct inhouse training at our production units in Switzerland to brief the farmers on quality concerns”
Antony Panakal, Business Development Manager, Stella Bernrain
Kerala’s cultivators, having had bitter experiences in the past, were no more the ordinary audience. They did not pay heed to Stella’s proposals. Even the farmer cooperatives were sceptical. Stella persisted with her proposal. Senior technologist Markus Lutz visited the cocoa belt of Kerala extensively to meet representatives of the farmer groups and invited them to his production unit in Switzerland for quality training. Further, Stella offered a premium of USD 750 per tonne over the quoted price. After four years of deliberations, from 2006 to 2010, two institutions—a cooperative society and a farmer producer company—expressed interests and struck contracts. Stella now had with her Mancarcadu Social Service Society (MASS) in Kottayam and Indian Organic Farmers Producer Company Limited (IOFPCL). In 2010, the first lot of organic and fairtrade Indian cocoa reached Switzerland.
Even the aroma of the cocoa has a pinch of Stella’s contribution. The company insisted on organic cultivation and provided technological inputs, including implements for fermentation and drying to the cultivators. In return, Indian farmers provided the expected quality of moderately mild, light fruity, organic cocoa, very different from the stronger variants of South American and African origin. “A new premium chocolate brand named ‘India Noir 72%’ has been launched with the Kerala cocoa,” informs Antony Panakal, business development manager, Stella Bernrain. “We are also using India-sourced cacao to prepare private labelled chocolates,” he adds.
The model introduced by Stella has been helpful to the small farmers who never received due returns under the oligopolistic system of large local cultivators that prevailed earlier. As soon as the Indian contracts were inked, the international prices of cocoa shot up, changing the terms of trade in favour of cultivators in general, according to Panakal. He informs that India was not the first country where Stella introduced collaborative practices. It has financed a cocoa nursery for the Association of Small Producers of Talamanca (APPTA), a farmer cooperative and a drying plant in Costa Rica. The firm also conducts regular training programmes at Cooperative El Ceibo in Bolivia, and has provided Norandino, a cooperative in Peru, with both onsite and offshore training at its factory in Switzerland.