Wish you could run away to Samoa right now? Me too. Heck, I’d settle for the sun-drenched climes of Hawke’s Bay. Even that seems like an impossible dream at the moment. Sigh. However, I’m making up for it by eating some divine chocolate made from Samoan-grown cacao beans, thanks to Hawke’s Bay entrepreneurs Nia and Phil Belcher. Intrigued? Here’s the full story.
The Belchers have been in the chocolate business since 2010, when Nia started looking for a way to help out cacao farmers in her mum’s village in Samoa. They’ve grown from very humble beginnings to now working with more than 200 farmers in different communities. Their chocolate – Ola Pacifica – is now made in Switzerland and shipped worldwide.
Recently – slap bang in the middle of lockdown – the Belchers launched three new flavours: coffee, orange and almond. Launching a new range in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t one of the topics covered in Small Business 101, but the Belchers reckon chocolate is an important small joy in these difficult times.
“I love producing chocolate that makes people happy,” Nia says. “The taste of Samoan-grown beans is very different from beans grown in other countries.”
The Ola Pacifica story starts near Apia, where Nia grew up making cocoa mass from cacao beans. “We’d make our favourite cacao drink from the cocoa mass, so I also knew we could make chocolate if we ground it further,” she says.
An interest in food and cooking, combined with a desire to revitalise a dormant but sustainable industry in Samoa, inspired her to experiment further.
“Samoa’s cocoa industry used to thrive under the administration of Germany back in the late 1800s, but the industry basically ended when the Germans left,” Nia says.
“Samoans were still growing it – they love their koko drink – but we wanted to provide an alternative market for the growers. We started with cacao beans and nibs and gradually grew into different products including chocolate.”
The Belchers knew they were onto a good thing when their first products, sugar-free cacao beans and nibs, flew off the shelves. By mid-2013, they’d grown the range to four products. Inspiration for their next move – making dairy-free chocolate – came after Nia discovered that she was allergic to dairy products in 2014. She threw in the towel on her corporate job as a town planner and committed to the business full-time in 2015.
Growth was good, but it brought hard decisions to make. If they wanted the business to succeed, the Belchers realised it made sense to have Ola Pacifica chocolate made in Switzerland.
“The question of ‘why Switzerland?’ is often asked, and there are many reasons,” Nia says.
For one thing, it’s cheaper to send a container of beans from Samoa to Europe than from Samoa to New Zealand. (I know. This is one to file away under ‘great mysteries of the universe’, like where odd socks go.) Then there’s the issue of scale.
“Our growers needed a bigger market than just New Zealand,” Nia says.
“We’re a New Zealand-owned global business, supporting Samoan growers, and we can do a better job of that making the chocolate where our target market is. Many of our dairy-free//vegan consumers are in Europe and the USA.
“The ‘made in NZ’ branding may be attractive; but not everything can be grown in New Zealand and still be profitable for artisan makers,” she says.
“Many of those who make chocolates in New Zealand do so with cacao mass that’s actually from Belgium or other places in Europe; with other ingredients (nuts etc) produced elsewhere and imported. But it can be put together here and called ‘made in New Zealand’ even if the ingredients have been processed in three different countries and sourced from many more.”
Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, Ola Pacifica chocolate is certified as being carbon neutral – the packaging is recyclable and the Swiss manufacturers offset their carbon emissions with planting projects.
“The Swiss we are working with are not just any Swiss chocolate maker but one with similar values on sustainability,” Nia says. ‘They’re the leading world producer of carbon neutral chocolates; they actively support suppliers and growers and are very advanced in future thinking.”
Of course, no amount of future thinking can protect a small business from the shockwaves of a global pandemic but Nia is bravely optimistic.
“We are very fortunate,” she says. “We have not lost anyone or had anyone we love suffer. We were also so fortunate that the last container of beans arrived in Europe where it was warehoused and stored before the lockdown. Likewise, the first container of finished chocolates had just arrived in NZ, been warehoused and were ready for launch when the lockdown hit here as well. So luckily, we had chocolates on the ground ready for distribution into our online store and physical shops where possible.”
It’s not every day that you can treat yourself to a taste of Samoa and support a small, sustainability-focused New Zealand business in one delicious bite. This is really very good chocolate. You deserve some, don’t you?
Are you a New Zealand food or drink producer with a story to tell? Let me know…