Giving up her safe job in a big hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia was the biggest gamble of Maria Jackson's young life. The second was ploughing her entire savings into the boutique chocolate making company that she planned to launch. But less than a year later, this 26-year-old woman is firmly convinced that she made the right decision and is already setting her sights on the export market.
In her own country, Maria's small enterprise, Cacao Sainte Lucie, is building up a steady clientele for its line of hand-crafted chocolate bars, which she sells through airport terminals, hotels, restaurants and craft shops.
She was working as a pastry chef in a hotel when the idea of starting an agribusiness venture came to her. As part of her job, she had to make in-house chocolates. After learning the skill and seeing how popular the products were with hotel guests, she saw the potential for starting her own hand-made chocolate business.
"Many of the guests at the hotel were curious as to why no one was making chocolate as a business in St. Lucia, seeing that we grow cocoa beans here and export them," said Maria. "So I thought it would be a great idea, to create small bars of chocolate for our visitors to enjoy. I decided to invest everything – my time and resources into the project, and so far, the results have been great."
The personal touch
Support in making her difficult decision to leave her job to focus on her start-up came from her husband Callistus, who helps her with production when he gets back from his own work at the end of the day.
Making the chocolate bars, which are flavoured with local products such as island spices, is a labour intensive operation. It involves organising the pick-up of cocoa beans from island farmers, with whom Maria has drawn up an agreement to buy a certain amount on a regular basis. She sources all her beans directly from local producers, having first tested them for quality. St. Lucia has plantations dotted around the hills, though cocoa production has now been replaced by tourism as the island's main source of revenue.
After leaving the beans to ferment for seven days, they are dried in the sun for a similar length of time, before being hand sorted and peeled in a winnowing machine, then roasted and ground.
"The seven day fermentation phase is critical to the flavour of the final product, accounting for 70 percent of the taste, so it's really crucial that we get that right," explains Maria. "The paste is allowed to mature for another two to three weeks, to develop an even richer flavour, and is then tempered."
This laborious process involves heating and cooling the chocolate to create perfect crystallisation. The final stage of production is the pouring into moulds, followed by packaging and labelling, all by hand.
To market her products, Maria visits retail outlets personally, arranging for orders to be delivered through a local distribution company. She attributes the appeal of the chocolate to its purity and to the fact that it's an authentic St. Lucian product, made from beans grown on the island and crafted by a local person. Maria has already hired two members of staff to help with production and packaging, and says it is important to her that she keeps her business in her local community.
"Where I live, in the village of Canaries, there is no economic activity, so I saw starting a small business as an opportunity to create some jobs for young women," she says. "I have been pressed to relocate my company to a city area, but it's my intention to keep it where it is, so that it is still based in the local community."
The battle for credit
With a four-year-old son, finding the time to dedicate to her small enterprise and her family is not easy. But aside from juggling her time and commitments, Maria's greatest challenge has been finding a source of credit to launch her business.
"In terms of accessing loans, you have to have a business plan in place and answer a great many questions. Even then, I was turned down by a number of financial institutions," she says. "In the end, I used my own personal savings. The business was expensive to set up, partly because of the machinery, but also because I had to renovate my garage to turn it into a production unit."
Branching out into agritourism is the next stage of Maria's business plan. She is planning to organise tours and demonstrations for international tourists and hopes to build a larger production unit in 2017, though it will still be located close to her home.
"My whole intention was to start small, but I have always wanted to grow into a processing facility where I can entertain guests and show how the product is made," says Maria. "It's also a way of sending a little piece of St. Lucia back to their countries. So my idea is to start exporting the chocolate bars as well."
Maria has no hesitation in advising other young people to follow her example.
"Agriculture sometimes has a stigma attached to it, but although there may be struggles and hurdles if you decide to open an agribusiness, I would definitely say go ahead to other young people. For a start, you are assisting your community, your island or wherever you are from - and the sky's the limit."
Maria Jackson is one of ten young agripreneurs from the Caribbean region who have been given training in product and business development by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), as part of the Agricultural Policy Programme (APP). CTA is implementing the Intra ACP Agriculture Policy Programme in the Caribbean and Pacific regions, in collaboration with IICA and the South Pacific Community (SPC).