Arrived in Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, at 2am. Taxi wound its way through the dark streets to our admittedly posh hotel where we slept until 11am before heading towards the factory of Chocolat Robert. These guys make the non-deodorised cocoa butter we use in all our Madagascar chocolate. It’s a wonderful aromatic butter, adding it makes our chocolate thinner and gives it a nicer mouth feel whilst mellowing some of the acidic flavour the Madagascar cacao is famous for. Our contact Nicolas is a gentle informative host, taking us on a tour around the large factory answering our questions and showing us the equipment. Several of the conches are macintyres, built in Scotland! Chocolate Robert has been making chocolate in Antananarivo since 1940, now producing 600 tons of product annually, half of which is sold in Madagascar. As well as using the butter we also sell their bars in our Bruntsfield our shop. (They are on special offer just now, nudge nudge).
After the visit we go up to view the city from above, outside the queens palace which was burned to an empty shell several years ago by the people. We remain unclear why exactly but there are plenty of men willing to give us a personal tour, which we decline. Our euros instead go to a man selling miniature beige Citroen 2cv cars made from old tin cans, a replica of the local taxi.
The city itself is an organised chaos, I was told there are great markets in Tana, but it appears the entire place is a market, with traders on the street everywhere selling everything from haircuts to phone covers. They are not afraid of a hard sell, I spent some time assuring a lad that we didn’t want to purchase a windscreen wiper. As we sat in the back of the taxi he pushed the wipers through the barely open window and looked deep into my soul encouraging me that these were the perfect wipers for me. As soon as he gave up somebody took his place, music CDs, steering wheels, a man with 2 dead lobsters. Thunder broke through the clouds above and as the heavens opened with heavy rain the traders retreated for cover and our journey through the city continued, traffic jams, minor collisions and horns being par for the course in Antananarivo.
Arrived last night in Nosy Be, a popular tourist island in the north east of Madagascar. Enjoyed listening to our drivers speaking to each other in Malagasy, full of animation. After passing many small huts lit by candle and people gathered around small fires we arrive at the Anjiamarango beach resort. It’s French owner Philippe is a lovely character, his resort is beautiful and well looked after, filled with tourists from around the world. We wait here for one day on the arrival of Bertil Akesson (the plantation owner). Snorkelling on a coral reef, listening to the sea, birds and insects, watching the geckos, reading a book, eating freshly caught grilled fish. Looking forward to meeting Bertil tomorrow and heading to the plantation on the mainland.
We left the tranquillity of the beach resort, travelling in relative comfort to Nosy Be airport to meet our friend (and owner of the cacao plantation) Bertil Akesson. Relaxed we awaited the planes arrival from a bar across the street where we could see people filtering out once they had collected their luggage. There is an unsettling poster on the bar entrance exclaiming that prostitution of children is prohibited… this reminds me we are not entirely in paradise.
After a while there are no more people leaving the terminal so I make my way in to find Bertil, he’s nowhere to be found. My smart (ass) phone seems to have picked the perfect time to stop working, with no internet and no call connection it just stares back at me enjoying its own vacation. We make stifling enquiries with our limited French, only establishing that there was only one flight and only one airport. It comes as no surprise later to find out that Bertil’s entire flight was simply bought earlier in the day by a group of politicians. Disorganisation and corruption has been increasing here since political meltdown several years ago. The country lost almost all of it’s international aid.
So we are woken from our dreamy secure slumber to realise we are in a bit of a situation. With no guide, no language skills and the name of a distant town on the mainland we keep moving. First by a taxi stopped twice by the local militia, I think our driver escaped without bribe – to the edge of the island where we are shown to a motor boat which took us on a bumpy half hour ride across the Indian ocean, soaked by sea water we then take another taxi to our destination Ambanja, near the Sambirano valley famed for its fine flavour cacao. As dusk falls we enter the town’s rough broken roads and dense population. The hotel is fully booked but the kind Muslim owner who speaks a little English tells us we can have one of his families rooms in the basement provided we don’t mind using the outside toilet.. A little unsure at first we accept the invitation and soon see that the room is fine, and squatting to do our business in a hole in the ground in a cupboard under the stairs is not too far beyond our Westernised comfort zone. After we unload our bags we step out into the dark African night towards a (the only) local restaurant. Under a small led light we dine on excellent steak and shrimp, halfway through the mains electricity kicks in, a small cheer from the people around and we are grateful to find that Ambanja is not off the grid entirely. Feeling less intimidated by our surroundings under the flickering Ambanja street lights, we make our way back to the hotel. Exhausted we discuss our situation and Scotland’s near success in the rugby to the nice hotelier.
The next day we were awoken early by the Muslim call to prayer, as the morning dawns we persevere with phone connections and manage to eventually make contact with Bertil. He explains the problem with the flights and all being well he will join us the next day. In the meantime the plantation manager Ivan, is able to come and pick us up today!
We are elated at this progress, having spent much of the hot sleepless night and morning figuring out how to adjust our tight schedule. It would be unbearable to make it this far and have to turn back without properly seeing the plantation.
Ivan, a French national living in Madagascar with an experience in processing cacao arrives with Sarah, an American PhD student studying the impact of climate change on agriculture. Together we leave the busy chaotic Ambanja streets behind and are soon winding our way through dense green countryside to Akesson’s plantation.
Moving on down the path we encounter a group of men and women opening and sorting the harvested cacao pods. They seem shy to speak with us at first but they let me have a go with the small machete and I manage to keep all my fingers intact. They are keen to continue with their work but open up to us a little with big smiles and are glad to share some chocolate with us. The workers will open 2000 pods in one day, and are paid the national wage of 40 euros per month (!) Managers can receive up to 200 euros. Living here is cheap but it comes at the price of being held back in poverty. We would all like it to be a simple case of paying the labourers more, but it’s just not that simple. Maintaining social stability is the main issue.
The Akesson plantation is providing the community with a stable income, the workers are respected and well cared for, there are plans to install 3 schools on the land, legally workers must be 16 to start work, although Ivan mentions the youngest they employ is 18. Every worker is given a small plot of land to grow their own crops on, this can be commercialised if they are motivated. There is further education and medical care, along with lots of good social venues in nearby Ambanja.
Cacao is the Sambirano’s biggest crop and it is clearly the livelihood of many people. The Akesson plantation is a key employer in the area and the workers are clearly happy to have work here. The plantation is aiming to plant 50,000 new cacao trees per year and has a very productive nursery. The lack of help from the government and the amount of corruption is obviously frustrating and debilitating for the people. Wherever we go we are hustled by young men wanting small tips for helping us. Crime rates do not appear to be exceptionally high, Ivan tells me if anyone is causing trouble it’s usually the police.
Moving on we inspect various trees and deeper in we discover some of Akesson’s criollo trees. Most of what is grown here is considered to be Trinitario cacao, a mixed pollination from various trees resulting in fine flavour. What are considered criollos here have a different genetic character and are considered to have a superior flavour. The seeds are a pure white, not like the typical violet colour of most cacao. The plantation only produces 1 ton of criollo annually, there is much more demand than supply so it goes for a good price. The plantation is searching for these trees so that the seeds can be planted ensuring the future preservation of the criollo genetics.
Coming out of the dense cacao forest we pass rows of ylang ylang before reaching the main farmhouse and cacao processing centre. it’s a really excellent facility, here the harvested cacao seeds are poured into the wooden fermentation boxes, there are 4 rows of boxes in Akesson’s step system, the cacao will stay 2 days each in the first and second, then 1 day each in the third an forth. The result is a high quality and even fermentation. After fermentation the cacao is flash dried on concrete by the sun for 3 hours before being moved onto large wooden beds for the final drying process. These large wooden beds are an amazing construction with metal wheels and runners allowing the beans to be quickly moved under cover if it rains. Under the cover of the drying hut we open some chocolate bars and attract a lot of attention from all the workers who gather around for a try.
After we have finished our tour we head back to Ambanja and Ivan shows us the great Sambirano River, followed by a good dinner and beer(s) we arrive at our hotel late and really pleased with the day.
The following morning Bertil and Gregg from Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco arrive, at last, having taken them 3 days longer than originally intended. It’s a Saturday so the workers finish at 12pm, Bertil is keen to get to the plantation so we make haste to get there. We had originally planned to leave on Saturday, but realised that provided the plane is on time and available to us we could fly on Sunday and connect straight away to our long flight home. That is what happened, giving us one more day to re-tour the plantation this time with Bertil and Gregg. Dandelion are brilliant chocolate makers and we really enjoy the opportunity to talk about equipment with Gregg.
I write this episode of the blog on our final short flight from Paris to Edinburgh. We’ve been on travelling for a long time, from the bumpy dusty roads of Ambanja across the ocean, through several airports. It’s a great relief to be back in the sanitisation and safety of Europe, suffering from a slight fever and upset stomach ever since we left. Not uncommon when our bodies are exposed to new microorganisms in the less travelled parts of foreign countries, but I wasn’t too happy about the timing, nearly passing out in the achingly long queues of Antananarivo Airport.
We’ll be home soon, inspired to get back to making chocolate. While we were away our new conch arrived, and our latest order from the Akesson plantation should be on its way too. We can’t wait to get started!