Cacao was first introduced in Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century
It is said that the famous Doctor Alexandre Yersin, a disciple of Pasteur, discoverer of the bubonic plague bacillus and formidable presence in Indochina from the 1890s to his death in Nha Trang in 1943 tried among many other projects to introduce cacao to Vietnam. Let’s just say this might not have been his most successful enterprise.
Indeed, a look at the French administration records in the early 20th century reveals that the French were early quitters in the cacao game: by order of the Lieutenant General of the colony the subsidy paid to the local farmers for growing cacao in 1890 was rescinded on January 24, 1907: “It seems, effectively, useless to encourage this culture which has, until now, not yielded any satisfying result”.
That’s from the same colonial power that imported most of its cocoa from the tiny island of Sao Tome (then a portuguese colony) or from the British Gold Coast (now Ghana), but didn’t develop cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, which became the world’s biggest producer after gaining independence…
A few trees nevertheless remained in some Mekong Delta provinces, where the fruits were enjoyed fresh or sometimes turned into cocoa but without any significant investment or know how, cocoa remained a marginal product in Indochina.
Act 2 : Cocoa for the USSR
The second act of the Vietnamese cacao story takes place in the bleak hours of the 1980s, when a reunified but defiant Vietnam depended chiefly on the USSR and other Eastern Block countries for its meagre trade. Soviet experts encouraged the plantation of cacao but by the time the trees were planted and growing pods in the early 90s the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Russian buyers had vanished and the farmers had no-one to sell their cocoa to. All but a handful of these trees were felled.
Above: Mr. Hoa, our Sourcing manager, standing next one of the oldest cocoa trees in Vietnam, planted about 20 years ago in Dong Nai province
Taking part in cacao’s Renaissance in Vietnam
In the past 10 years, cacao has benefited from favorable factors:
international trading companies (Cargill, EDF Man, Armajaro, Touton…), NGOs and public development aid (in particular US Aid’s Success Alliance program) have all invested in the development of cacao in Vietnam, supporting the efforts of remarkable academics like Dr Phuoc of the Nong Lam agricultural university.
Many programs are now supporting the effort of small farmers in a number of provinces, and we have met with many people who are passionate about cacao, whose hard work is making Vietnam one of the most exciting new producers of cacao in the world.
Chocolate makers have also shown an interest in Vietnamese cacao beans with renowned makers like Scharffen Berger in the US or Demarquette in the UK making limited edition Vietnam origin chocolates.
Being the first artisan chocolate maker based in Vietnam, and working in close collaboration with farmers, cooperatives and cacao experts, Marou is aiming to make Vietnamese chocolate a widely recognized origin for gourmet chocolate.