From Ghana to Porirua
A day after Nigella Lawson was brought to Wellington to controversially film a Whittaker's chocolate advertisement, the Porirua chocolate factory welcomed another overseas guest. Rose Boatemaa Mensah, a Ghana cocoa farmer, didn't attract the same level of media scrutiny as Lawson, a UK celebrity chef, but her visit also revealed how far Whittaker's has come since the family-owned company began making chocolate back in 1896.
Whittaker's is embracing the trend for traceability in food products, along with fair trade, and it was in that context that it welcomed Boatemaa Mensah to tour its factory floor. The 30-year-old cocoa farmer grows cocoa beans on 7.5 acres of land in Brong Ahafo, Ghana, and she's part of the Kuapa Kokoo Farmers' Union, so her products receive a fair price and the fair trade premium is invested back into her community.
Since Boatemaa Mensah joined the co-op she has undergone training to make her farm more productive – in pre-fair trade days, she harvested 12 bags of cocoa beans each year; today, the yield has grown to 64 bags a year.
Some of those cocoa beans end up here, in this factory sprawling over an industrial site on the Porirua hillside, where New Zealanders' favourite chocolate brand is produced in a slick, round-the-clock operation.
In the past decade, Whittaker's has expanded to bring in top-of-the-line machinery that whirs away efficiently, while the number of staff sorting peanuts, packing chocolate bars and peanut slabs, and working in the architecturally-designed offices, has risen from 30 to 100.
There's no Willy Wonka at the door or an Oompa Loompa in sight – instead, Whittaker's is a modern operation, where all visitors and staff have to don white coats and hair nets. The smell of chocolate pervades everywhere, sickly sweet in some rooms, and slightly acidic in others, depending on the production stage.
Matt and Holly Whittaker are fourth-generation Whittakers, who grew up eating chocolate bars off the production line as kids. Matt jokes that he ate his share of K-Bars, too, in the days when the company was best known for its peanut slabs.
These days, the machines are going at the rate of knots making chocolate blocks. Holly, company brand manager, points to a machine which is batch-roasting beans from Ghana, 160 kilograms of beans at a time.
If you munch into a bar of Whittaker's chocolate, most of the beans will have come from Ghana, many from the co-op that Boatemaa Mensah belongs to. To get to that stage, a cocoa plant takes three years to produce fruit, so it's a long process.
Whittaker's also sources a small quantity of cocoa beans from Madagascar. Its Creamy Milk and 72 per cent Dark Ghana bars, now its biggest sellers, have been Fairtrade-certified since 2009 and 2012 respectively.
"Our peanut slabs are still our most iconic, quintessential product, but our hero range is now our blocks, and the best performers of those are the Creamy Milk blocks," explains Holly, picking up a handful of cocoa beans.
Later, we reach a sorting machine which she describes as "like a chocolate car park". Blocks of chocolate are whizzing around off the production line.
In another part of the factory, women are sorting peanuts, while wrapped blocks are being packed into boxes. A shiny new machine makes Creamy Milk chocolate at 18 microns rather than the old days of 35 microns - in chocolate speak, that means it's silky and smooth and literally does melt in the mouth.
As sales manager, Matt is responsible for the firm's 15 markets. Whittaker's has recently started a trial in China, stocking Walmart's 400 stores with its chocolate bars.
Despite the firm's growth, we still don't eat as much chocolate as United Kingdom residents – 3.5 kilograms per head of population here, compared with 10kg in the UK – so there's potential to get us indulging even more. Even though Whittaker's has recently bought an adjoining block of land on which to expand, it's a tiny chocolate maker compared with chocolate giants like Cadbury and Lindt.
Boatemaa Mensah explains that her cocoa beans go to the UK and that the fair trade premium has helped fund community projects, such as a mobile health centre which visits once every three months. Also a teacher at her local primary school, it's her dream that her community will have a permanent health clinic.
The West African nation is the second largest cocoa producer in the world, behind the Ivory Coast - 85,000 people make up the co-op that Boatemaa Mensah belongs to, out of 800,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana.
Back home, the farmer, her husband and two children don't eat chocolate as it's not for sale like it is here. But she left New Zealand with bags of Whittaker's chocolate to share with family and friends back home. "It's my first time out of my country," she smiles, "and my first time visiting a factory where chocolate from my beans is made."
Fair Trade Fortnight's The Power of You campaign is on until Sunday, encouraging people to buy responsibly. Conscious Consumers and Fairtrade City Wellington are joining forces for a Fairtrade Fiesta. Thursday, May 15, 5.30pm, Southern Cross Bar – Te Aro, Wellington. The free event has Fairtrade cocktails (with help from the team at Karma Cola) and free sampling from Wellington Fairtrade businesses, including All Good Bananas, Wellington Chocolate Factory, KTea, Celcius Coffee, Caffe L'affare, Havana, Commonsense Organics, Trade Aid and more.
The Dominion Post