Plus Cacao

Exploring Liberia's Cacao Renaissance: A Chat with Lu Tolbert (part 1)

Embark on a journey through West Africa as Liberia takes center stage in revitalizing its Cacao industry.

Lu Tolbert, the CEO of Liberia Cocoa Corporation, shares insights into this transformative effort. Despite financial challenges and the need for enhanced skills, international partnerships are paving the way for Liberia’s emergence as a global player in high-quality Cacao production. Dive into our conversation with Lu Tolbert to uncover the details behind Liberia’s determined push towards a thriving Cacao market.

Lu speaks about ‘cocoa’ which refers to the plant and the beans (not the cocoa powder).
I use the term Cacao.

Justyna
Lu, tell us a bit about yourself, what company are you working for and what do you do there?

Lu Tolbert:
My name is Lu Tolbert. I am the CEO of Liberia Cocoa Corporation, which is an agroprocessing business located in Liberia. We primarily work with smallholder farmers to show them how to produce cocoa more efficiently, better, so that they can add value to their end product. Most of the farmers have been doing conventional cocoa: cocoa that is not certified, but we are trying to transition them to certified cocoa and the first certification will be organic. The farmers are in Lofa County, and we started this in 2009. Our own private farm. It’s roughly about 35 cocoa trees that we got from Ghana. Seeds that we planted and grew into the plantation. Currently the plantation is producing and we use the seeds, the cocoa that we get from there, usually we export them because they have been the conventional way. But now that we are transitioning into organic certified cocoa, we’ll be using a lot of this for the next phase of our business, which will be value addition processing of cocoa. 

Justyna:
Why Cacao? Why farming? 

Lu Tolbert:
So quickly on my background. I did not go into agriculture in school. I have a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University and I came to Liberia in 2006. I’m originally from Liberia, but I left when I was very little, four years old, and moved to Europe and then to New York. So it’s been a lot of traveling and everything, but I decided to get into agriculture when I came back and saw the potential that agriculture could have on farming communities that you can make a great impact directly as opposed to working from international organization, which I did work I used to work at UNDP (United Nations Development Program).
We did similar work, but there was a lot of bureaucracy in that kind of work, so  I decided to start my own company. Most people thought I was very crazy at the time. Yes, because UNDP paid pretty well, and I was there for about three and a half years before I decided to venture into this (own business). I think that I didn’t fit the organization really, because I’m more of an entrepreneurial spirit. 
I think that was the main reason why I decided to leave. But ever since we have done quite well. As you know, we are venturing into our value addition processing that we like to start this year. 

Justyna:
Please, tell us more about the project, because I can hear that you put a lot of heart in what you’re doing, and it’s not only for your own good, but also for the greater good, for the people, for the country of your origin. So tell us more about it.

Lu Tolbert:
So we’ve been doing this for about twelve years now. We have gotten quite good at the post harvest production of the cocoa. So we use centralized processes, which is centralized fermentation and centralized drying. So the cocoa is of a uniform quality, and we have pretty good results from this actual process. We have shared our beans internationally, and we have gotten a lot of good feedback from the quality. So the idea came to me that we should establish a processing arm of this particular company, because the chocolate makers love the beans, they’re making great chocolate. So we said, well, why can’t we do it ourselves? So that was the idea of the next phase of this project. So we decided to get the required equipment that would make chocolate products. The roaster, the ball mill, the Conching machine.

Justyna:
The tempering machine as well, I suppose.

Lu Tolbert:
Yes. Tempering machine too. So we could also make these chocolates, the molds and everything that’s required, the mini grinders, essentially everything. So we have this equipment now, and we planned to start in July. All of our production, we’re just doing the last trials now of the equipment, the machinery, to make sure everything is connected properly. There are a lot of different components that go into this, because we’re starting at a larger scale than most people who go into this business do. Most people start out with the stone melangers and we have those too. But we’re using ball mill technology, which produces the cocoa liqueur (aka Pure Cacao) a lot faster, hour and a half, as opposed to maybe two to three days.

Justyna:
Wow. That’s a big differentiator!

Lu Tolbert:
That’s a big difference. Absolutely. If you pre grind your cocoa nibs, you could do it in maybe six to eight hours. So, as we have started now, we’re making contacts internationally with different people at different organizations, some importers, some distributors. We recently attended the Biofach in Germany in February. We made a lot of connections at that particular event, and we have a lot of interest in what we’re doing. So we’re sending samples to chocolate makers and  distributors in Europe. And we’ll be doing the same thing for those in the US. So when we have our brand later this year, we can also provide some to those vendors, distributors, to get our product, our brand, into the European and the US market. So that’s on the chocolate side, we also want to make other derivatives such as cocoa powder, cocoa liqueur and cocoa butter with similar machines that we’re doing. Cocoa nibs, another one. So the main ones we’ll be doing first are the cocoa liqueur and the cocoa nibs. So we’ll start those first and then we’ll go into the powder and the butter at a later date. We also have the capacity to make private labels for individuals who want to make the chocolate but don’t want to deal with the hassle of making it and running a farm and all of that.

Justyna:
It’s a great help for the clients.

Lu Tolbert:
Exactly. So we could do the private label for them, for those who want that. But the overall quality that we produce is excellent. It’s quite good and we keep perfecting it because we control the value chain. That’s the difference here. We have the product already on the farm and through working with the farmers, we can control the actual post harvest activities to make sure everything is uniform, which you cannot get from buying it on the mass market when you have lots of different cocoas from lots of different origins being mixed together. And then you get a product which doesn’t taste as good as it could have if you were to do centralized processing.

Justyna:
Because you’ve got everything in place, starting from the seed, and then all the Cacao is growing there. You’ve got the harvesting, post harvesting processing, and then you’ve got your own facility to process it. So that makes your Cacao unique and very high quality, I believe, am I right?

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, you’re absolutely right. The quality is directly dependent on what you do after you harvest the beans. So our beans are harvested on a two week interval. We keep records of everything, so we only harvest the ripe cocoa they’re kept for one day before we break them. Immediately they go into the fermentation boxes. There’s a process there where we do time and temperature readings that we keep log sheets of how many days have been there. And usually we keep it by the fermentation boxes. We use box fermentation, three different boxes. Usually it’s about two days in each box. It could be five days also, depending on what’s happening during the season. But you can test the cocoa throughout the process. So you make sure it’s not over fermented, because over fermented is not great either. Then the beans are put onto improved dryers. It’s not a greenhouse. It looks like a greenhouse, but it uses ventilation, convection to dry the beans so it’s more slow drying. And the reason is that you want to make sure the acidity comes out of the bean. Many mistakes that people make is that they dry the cocoa bean after fermentation too quickly and then that locks in the acidity. So you have very astringent beans when you taste them and that leads to astringent chocolate.

Justyna:
So drying the Cacao beans too fast may cause this acid aftertaste? 

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, exactly. It’s almost like vinegar a little bit. It’s a very harsh taste. And that’s something that can be easily corrected just through drying technique. So on the first day of the drying process, we use a thick layer of cocoa beans spread out. And then the second day you can make it thinner. And then from there you can dry it quickly because the acidity is already out of the bean.

Justyna: Okay. Let’s go back for a moment to the fermentation boxes, because you said there are three of them, so why is that? So each portion of the beans will stay in each box for two days?

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, that is correct. You have one box above the next box, and then the last box is almost to ground level. So we have twelve boxes in total of four rows of three. So on the first day when you’re putting in the cocoa beans, you’re putting them in the upper box. But before you put them in the box, you’re putting in banana and plantain leaves because you want to wrap everything and you want to keep the heat as much as possible during this first phase. And you don’t want air to get in there. So it’s called the anaerobic phase of the cocoa fermentation. So you wrap everything tightly and then you keep it still for two days. If you put it in at 10:00, after two days, at 10:00, you move it to the next box so it’s precise. So you move it to the next middle box. You need to turn the beans to make sure the beans that are on the bottom do not go to the top, and the beans that are on the top go to the bottom.
That makes sure that you have well fermented beans within the box. So that process is used on the second day, you use a paddle and then you lift up a little sliding gate on the first box and then you’re able to push all the beans down to the next level.
The whole process takes usually between five to six days, you can look to see what’s happening with the beans. You can take one or two out and cut them in half to see whether or not the fermentation is taking place. Well, if it needs another day or so, or you need to stop it because it’s already well fermented.

Justyna:
And you recognize the level of fermentation by the color of the bean inside?

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, you recognize it from the color, and you also recognize it from the temperature. When you’re reaching certain temperatures, you know that the beans are getting well fermented. That happens usually around the fifth day. But one of the tricky parts is that sometimes the fermentation takes longer, like six days. It happens sometimes when on the fifth day, you don’t check the cocoa too carefully. It’s important to do that at that particular time, because once you put it on the dryer on the thicker level, it’s still fermenting for that one day.

Justyna:
Oh, okay. So the process doesn’t stop when the beans leave the box. It’s still ongoing in the dryer for a day.

Lu Tolbert:
Correct. So if you want six days, you should take it out on the fifth day and then put it in the dryer, and the 6th day of fermentation  will be in the dryer. But sometimes what happens is the beans are kept for six days in the boxes, and then they’re put on the dryer on the thick level. So that’s almost like seven days. So you can get slightly over fermented beans that way. It’s a new strategy that we’re using. So farmers are still getting accustomed to it.

Justyna:
I believe that there are always new ways to innovate into the process, like learning from the mistakes and implementing some changes. So the beans have the best taste and quality. I can imagine that it’s a long process for finding the perfect processing option.

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, that is correct. About 90% of the value of the bean comes after you break the pod open. So any cocoa, I believe, has the potential to be a great bean. It’s what you do with it after that really tells you what the bean will be like. You always hear about Latin America, Costa Rica, Peru, having the best cocoa beans and everything. Yes, they’re very good. But here in West Africa, too, there are similar characteristics in terms of the fruitiness and aroma, and we have been able to develop that. It’s quite fruity because the cocoa is a fruit. It is just to try to bring out those sensory flavors out of the bean. And that’s done through the fermentation and the drying. Even beans from Peru, which internationally are accepted as very high quality beans, if you were to do the same thing, if you were to under-ferment them or over-ferment them, they would not be as good. So intrinsically, all the cocoa beans have unique characteristics. It’s just what you do in the post harvest that will bring them out. So we’ve been able to get fruity flavors, just like the beans in Peru or Costa Rica, Venezuela. Absolutely. We’ve been able to get fine flavor, as it’s called, fine flavor chocolate from there.

Justyna:
I’m familiar with the Cacao liquor from Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone and Congo. And I must say that the African Cacao varieties are amazing. I also feel that Africa has great potential. The soil and the people who are working on the plantations make a very good product that you can later either produce the chocolate from or just drink it simply like that because it’s a very good quality. So can you bring us further what’s happening after the drying or during the drying as well? Because you mentioned the acidity is fading. I would call it like that.

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, absolutely. So on the first day of the drying process, that’s the only day where you have to slow things down a little bit. You still have acetic acid in the beans at that point. And you want to get rid of that because that is considered an off flavor. So you just slow the drying down for the first day by making a thick layer of beans. Then you can spread them much thinner and then you can dry very quickly. If you want, you can even put them in the direct sun to help them dry a lot quicker.

Justyna:
So the air circulation plus the sun exposure will help the drying process faster?

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, you can design that into your structure, which is the solar dryer. You can open the top and let the sun directly in. If not, you can just spread the beans very thin and then you open the sides so the convection, the heat comes up through the beans. We use a fishing net, a plastic net where we put the cocoa beans so a lot of air can penetrate through where the cocoa beans are placed. And that helps to do that. Before we were using bamboo matting, which used to block the air. So we were using it as a heating box to heat the cocoa beans and dry them that way. But that’s not the preferred way. Yes, it’s warm inside, but it’s not hot. 

Justyna:
So beans get dried faster when the air circulation is not blocked, like with the bamboo mat?

Lu Tolbert:
Yes, absolutely. So we dry the beans down to around 7%. The international standard is 8% and we dry it down to 7% because we like to store the beans. And it’s better to do it when they are a little bit drier. So at the farm site, once they’re dried, they’re put into yute bags and then they’re transported down by truck to Bonrovia, where the facility is. Once it gets down to the facility, we transfer the cocoa beans into grain pro bags. Grain pro bags are like a giant Ziploc bag.

This marks the end of Part 1 of our engaging interview with Lu Tolbert, CEO of Liberia Cocoa Corporation, on the remarkable Cacao Renaissance in Liberia. If you’re eager to delve deeper into the exciting developments and insights surrounding Liberia’s journey in revitalizing its Cacao industry, stay tuned for Part 2. There’s more to uncover about the transformative efforts, challenges faced, and the promising future that lies ahead. Don’t miss out on the next installment of this enlightening conversation!

In part two of the interview, the discussion include road access issues, financial hurdles, and the scarcity of technical expertise in Cacao cultivation. Lu shares insights into the impact of historical events, such as the civil war, on Liberia’s Cacao industry and elaborate on the efforts undertaken for its revival. Certification processes, organic practices, and sustainability measures will also be discussed. 

See you soon!

photos thanks to liberiacocoa.com