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Chenai and the Chocolate Factory

Madagascar is a miracle. Peter Tyson called his book on it The Eighth Continent: an island 500km off the east coast of Africa, which developed a natural world almost in isolation from any other landmass for 160m years. Occupying 0.4% of the earth’s surface, it is one of the world’s top eight megadiversity countries, and one of the ecologies most at risk.

Antananarivo (or Tana), the capital, is built on a long, narrow ridge; its 12 hills, which look like clenched fists, must have always been perfect for a defensive city keen to repel attacks. Now modern cafés, boutique hotels and shiny 4x4s clash with the French colonial architecture of its churches, the cobbled streets, rice paddies beside swampy waters, shacks and crumbling wooden houses.

In Tana’s city centre, there’s no space between these disparate worlds. Outside the gated community of the Tana waterfront, 75% of children live in extreme poverty, and very few adults are doing much better. Hardship is apparent everywhere: a woman selling a handful of cashew nuts on the side of the road, children in tatters, a dog in a waste water pool, too weak to move.

But Madagascar is also a place of wonders made from its natural ingredients (it has always been a source of spices): cocoa, chilli, vanilla and salt, as mixed by the Malagasy chocolatier Shahin Chenai. He owns Cinagra, a small fine chocolate factory a few kilometres from the city centre. Cingara’s house brand, Menakao, created with old equipment on the first floor of a multi-storey building, has won many awards since its launch in 2006. “I have loved chocolate since my childhood,” said Chenai, a fourth-generation Gujarati Indian. “My grandfather worked on spices from Madagascar, and they exported to France. But they did cocoa as well, exporting it raw.”

Business is booming

Menakao takes its name from the Malagasy word mena (red), the colour of the earth in the fertile northwest where the cocoa is grown. Just 5,000 tonnes of cocoa is harvested in the country, most of it organic, grown without artificial pesticides and fertilisers. “It is miraculous to find the cocoa along the Sambirano river, and between the hills and sea,” said Chenai. “Many plants, from vanilla to black, grey and pink pepper, grow from the volcanic soil in that region.” He explained that cocoa usually grows in countries on the Equator, like Ivory Coast and Ghana. Yet “Malagasy cocoa is one of the best in the world; naturally aromatic; with a distinct acidity.”

A few kilometres between plantation areas is enough to subtly change the flavour of the cocoa bean: it can be flowery, fruity or spicy. Bringing the bean to its full flavour requires a delicate combination of harvesting, fermentation time and roasting. The products are continuously evolving, and Chenai is working on a new “sweet” flavour to add to his existing recipes of chilli and sea salt, coffee, vanilla, pepper and citrus.

“In the past chocolate was sold plain, then nuts were added. Nowadays, it’s a race to find the most innovative ingredients,” said Chenai. The design of the wrapping of the bars — Malagasy faces printed in bold colours — is as beautiful as the actual production process: molten chocolate pouring from the machine like gold, formed into bars, carefully wrapped in foil. Chenai is careful, even reverent, with his chocolate: he uses recycled water, generates his own electricity and has backup generators. A planter friend promised a constant supply of cocoa if Chenai would process it, which is how Cinagra started.

Business is booming, despite political troubles. In a 2009 coup, President Marc Ravalomanana was removed from power by Andry Rajoelina. Presidential elections, to be concluded this month after a run-off vote, show that the island’s politics are maturing. The upheaval did not deter foreign buyers or block access to European markets. Chenai is investing $1.4m, much of it his own money, in new equipment for his factory. Production, he says, will increase from 100 to 1,000 tonnes a month in a year, despite problems threatening the agricultural sector on which most Malagasy depend. “Since Rajoelina, there have been no agricultural policies, no support for farmers, and no supervision.” But as most land, including cocoa, is privately owned, the damage has been less severe. Has the Rajoelina administration meant hardships for his business? “We all have friends in government.”

‘Any stable job is a good job’

We couldn’t talk with the workers at Cinagra. A Romanian, who told us (in perfect English) that she spoke no French or English, would answer no questions about the factory, where half a dozen women sat quietly around the table, wrapping and packing chocolate. We were told workers received free transport, showers and lunches, saving 50% of their wages, and were unionised. An outsourced worker sweeping the floors said she earned very little (she was silenced before she could say how much). Another said: “Any stable job in Tana is a good job.” The minimum wage for non-agricultural workers is just over $40 a month. We were told that Chenai’s permanent workers earned 20% or more than the minimum wage and would receive a pension because of the company’s contributions to the state pension fund.

The biggest business obstacle is infrastructure. In the city centre, tourists travel around in rickety taxis, stripped to basics but somehow still moving. Other collective transport is cheap and available, though at times it can run awry. For the business owner, however, transporting goods is an arduous, costly task, owing to the state of the roads, the distance and the possibility of cocoa bandits. But things are improving. Chenai told us: “Ravalomanana built the road between Ambanja, near the cocoa farms, and Tana. Now transporting goods takes two days; before, it took between seven and 10 days.”

On the drive to the factory, the local manager for Cinagra’s biggest client, the US brand Madécasse, a fair trade, organic company, confirmed that logistics were the most difficult problem. “Infrastructure in the northern part of the country is rough. There aren’t any paved roads. Travel to and from the farms often happens by bicycle or oxcart,” said Tim McCollum, a former Peace Corps volunteer who founded the brand. “Even the road leading up to the chocolate factory is not paved. I wonder if there’s another chocolate factory in the world that doesn’t have a paved road.”

McCollum told us that Madécasse imported over “one million chocolate bars this year from Cinagra. This amounts to between 80 and 100 tons of chocolate capacity,” to be doubled in 2014. “Our chocolate is available in 15 countries around the world; the US is our biggest market, with over 2,000 stores that carry our product.” But McCollum was cagey on the financial success — and profits — of the brand.

West Africa grows over 70% of the world’s cocoa. Fair Trade, like organic certification, is important to sales in the US, and also in the UK, where 12% of all chocolate is fair trade-certified, a business worth more than £1.5bn ($2.43m) in 2012. Most fair trade cocoa is mixed with ordinary cocoa, and the fair trade is both small in volume (Nestlé uses 9,600 tonnes of it, and 370,000 tonnes of ordinary cocoa), and cheaper in price than ordinary cocoa on the New York Futures Exchange, where the price of all chocolate has increased sharply over the past few years. Companies are secretive and protected by trade secret laws. Some companies are alleged to violate labour and child rights.

Organic farming in Madagascar preserves the fragile land, preventing harsh chemicals from stripping the soil, and helps to conserve natural habitats and protect biodiversity. McCollum said everything for the chocolate was bought locally except for milk powder. But in the factory we saw many boxes of cocoa butter — a key ingredient — that had been imported from Malaysia. Chenai said his new equipment would mean they could do without this import. Other new equipment would mechanise packaging, cutting down on time and cost, and meaning some of the women hand-wrapping bars would soon be out of work.

We tasted one of their most spectacular recipes, a very spicy dark chocolate, enough to make your eyes water. Asked to sum up the basis of Madécasse, McCollum said: “Keeping the production in Madagascar.” He cited the high quality of craft and paper, in the wrapping, as well as the chocolate inside. “That’s the point of our business — high quality, start-to-finish in Africa. We want to print in Madagascar. We don’t want to print in China.”

Khadija Sharife is an investigative journalist and writer based in South Africa. 

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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