This is the story of how we began producing chocolate at LICC (and why you now see so many delicious chocolate pictures posted on our social media on a regular basis…….sorry-ooooooo)
By: Anna Glenn
If you know me well, then you know that there is no food that I value higher than chocolate. I am my mother’s daughter through and through when it comes to love of chocolate and all things cocoa. If I could eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day I probably would….
So you can imagine my delight when I realized that right here in this little town I now call home people are growing cocoa beans. I had heard someone mention cocoa beans in the midst of telling some other story (somehow the cocoa was not the main point of the story?!) and after tracing down this rumor a bit I was able to get some information on where I might be able to buy some cocoa for myself. Our driver Mark and I went out into town in search of it and were able to find the jackpot!!
I later found out that the place where we bought the cocoa beans was not actually technically supposed to be selling retail. They were actually a warehouse, a middleman, that acts as a storing facility. The farmers from the local villages bring their beans here for sale (or reps from the warehouse go out an purchase) and the beans are then kept in the warehouse in Ganta until they can be transported to Monrovia. Once in Monrovia, they head to the cargo ships and then most likely make their way to Europe for chocolate production. I was happy I was able to snag some before they made that long journey!
I ended up buying 2 kg (which ended up being closer to about 3 kg with how they “top things off” in Liberia) for 350 Liberian Dollars, which at that time was equivalent to about $2.80 USD. We got the cocoa beans home and really didn’t have any idea what to do with them. We quick hopped on youtube and found some videos and were able to concoct something that resembled the “taste” of chocolate, but was a far cry from the rich and creamy texture of chocolate that we are used to. The problem it turns out was that we could not get a smooth enough grind on the beans without some type of grinding machinery. If there’s anyone who knows how to roll full steam ahead on a good idea, it’s Bill lol. Within the next month my colleague Bill Sebald had ordered us a melanger on Amazon and had it in the suitcase of his nephew, due to arrive in Liberia the following month. Wait what?!!? That was fast!
In the meantime we continued watching youtube videos to try and learn everything we could about this chocolate making business (which FYI there is still soooo sooo much to learn). Some of the things we learned:
- Our next door neighbor, Ivory Coast, is the #1 cocoa bean exporter in the WORLD and Ghana and Nigeria fall also within the top 10. Liberia is nowhere on the list- for now!
- Liberia imports a lot of chocolate products. There is chocolate sold in every single grocery store and also there is an abundance of hot cocoa mixes sold in even the smallest of tea shops on the street. And yet, NONE of this is produced in Liberia. It is all imported, even though Liberia produces an abundance of cocoa beans.
- Water is the enemy of the cocoa grinding process! One drop of water in your beans can spoil the whole batch! Roast those beans well!
- Peeling the shell off the cocoa beans by hand is one of the most tedious processes ever and leaves your fingers incredibly raw and dirty- worth it though!
- One of our staff members, Konah, is just about as obsessed with chocolate as I am….when we told him we were going to start making chocolate he literally tried to lift Nathan up off the ground in excitement haha.
- Many of my students know people who are producing cocoa beans—which means we could buy directly from the farmers themselves so this is a win-win situation. Win for them (fair price) and win for us (we know and get to interact with our suppliers).
Once we got the melanger, our experiments were taken to the next level. Our first batch was a beautifully dark and rich and creamy success! After that we continued to make a few more batches, even starting to sell some of the product on the local market (although to be fair Konah’s wife hardly made it off the campus before it all got bought up lol). Next, we started making it in my Food Processing & Preservation class and we got ourselves even more hooked customers and a couple of chocolatiers we could call upon when it came time to increasing out production. So far I think we have made about 25 batches (so about 200+lbs of chocolate). We have sold it on the local market as well as to international guests when they visit for tours here at the ARC. I also brought home about 20 lbs to the US when we visited over the summer and watching people’s reactions as they tried it was absolutely the best and reassuring to me…no I’m not crazy, this chocolate is some of the best stuff I have ever had in my life!
The popularity of our product continues to grow. Since we have been back to Liberia, we are trying to make about 2 batches (8-10lbs) every week. We hope to keep expanding in Ganta, but also to the capital city of Monrovia. As far as we know, there is no one else processing cocoa beans into chocolate in Liberia at this time on this scale. We are constantly looking for sustainable business opportunities to help the school have a more regular and stable source of revenue ( because as of right now the support we receive from donors, the government, and even school fees just isn’t enough nor is it terribly reliable). We are also looking for ways to ensure that local farmers are supported in terms of fair market prices when it comes time to sell their product. This could be a great opportunity for the school, for our students, for the farmers, and for the Liberian cocoa value chain and economy as a whole.
We are praying for God to direct our steps with this chocolate experiment turned small business. We are asking God to help this business keeps growing. We are networking and making connections with other people in the cocoa industry, both abroad and here in West Africa, to find out all that we can and make the right connections. We are writing comprehensive business plans, analyzing data, applying for grants, and seeking out investors. Pray that God would help guide us on the next steps. Please pray alongside of us in this venture! And if you have any ideas or connections, please reach out to us so we can brainstorm more together.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few photos of our chocolate-making process and you can see how the process has evolved from our first batch of chocolate (which basically looked like dirt but tasted great) to our latest creation (chocolate coconut clusters packaged in beautiful lappa pouches):