At the time of publishing, Myanmar has one cacao farming group, one cacao processor, and one chocolate maker: Ananda Cocoa & Coffee. Based in the capital city of Yangon, the company has been around since the late 1990's— and cacao hasn't been in Myanmar much longer than that. Because although you may not have heard of it yet, the chocolate made in Myanmar has a history worthy of a feature-length film.
The tale would be centered around Ananda's founders, Jean-Yves Branchard & his wife, and would include kidnappings, deadly illness, forest fires, and repeated flooding. And this is all before a single bar of chocolate was ever made. Back then, there were very few safe places to visit in Myanmar, yet Branchard started a tour agency to begin bringing back visitors to the country as it recovered form civil war.
Even though Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a relatively less popular place to travel, I predict that Burmese food, landscapes, and people will soon be on everyone's radar. This goes double for the country's home-grown chocolate.
The Tumultuous History of Agriculture in Myanmar
While the land we now know as Myanmar has been settled for well over ten thousand years, the country as we know it only goes back a few hundred years. Before being made a British colony and before the independent state of Burma, there were numerous kingdoms scattered across the land. These once-sovereign groups have come to depend largely upon rice in the modern era, with fishing, livestock, and other low-to-the-ground crops dominating agriculture in Myanmar.
The lumber industry is of growing importance, as well, relevant due to its relation to the Burmese cocoa industry. Most of the rest of the country's major agricultural outputs aren't suitable to grow cocoa alongside. There's a reason you don't associate onions, sesame, and sugarcane with cocoa trees; none of these crops are mutually hospitable. But Myanmar's incredible forests are the perfect places to inter-crop cacao with existing tracts of trees, including the locally-relevant areca palm.
The problem with this idea, however, goes back to the kingdoms and colonialism in Myanmar. Since becoming independent, they've endured numerous oppressive governments, an ongoing civil war, and natural disasters which have left hundreds of thousands homeless. Over the years, this has resulted in many turning to those same forests as a source of income, shelter, and even just a way to heat their food.
Illegal logging remains a huge problem for landowners and a leading cause of deforestation in Myanmar. Up until five or ten years ago, limited infrastructure within the country made it difficult to bring such woods and all other goods (like cacao) to market. But with newly-paved roads, and bridges connecting more of the country, deforestation is now continuing faster than ever.
While the introduction of more cacao on existing farms in Myanmar could address a minute fraction of the problem, it's still a drop in the ocean insofar as slowing the destruction of the world's forests. Because, well, one man and his small team can only do so much.
Bringing Cacao to Myanmar
The first cacao brought to Myanmar is thought to have arrived sometime in the 1970's, but it's honestly hard to tell. "Everything was written on paper, so [the records] were just destroyed by time, weather, humidity... rats; whatever you can imagine," says Jean-Yves Branchard, founder of Ananda Chocolate. In the 20+ years he's lived in Myanmar, Branchard has come upon a number of abandoned cacao trees on government land, remnants of a long-ago experiment in cacao growing.
But since Branchard began his own Burmese cocoa experiment back in 2003, he still has yet to find any definitive answers about those first farms. Back then the government went so far as to begin producing their own chocolate making equipment, though Jean-Yves suspects they had trouble figuring out proper processing on their own, causing them to write it off as a failure. It was only in 2003, when Jean-Yves brought 16 different cocoa varietals sourced from CIRAD, that Myanmar's cocoa industry came back onto the record books.
CIRAD, the Centre de coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement, has an outpost on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. From there they were able to send 16 biologically clean samples direct to Myanmar. Yet more than a decade later, those original 16 have dwindled down to just 4. Everything from soil type and rainfall to natural weaknesses to local pests and disease could have brought that initial downfall, but there's no way to know.
What Jean-Yves cares most about is learning how to best address the issues plaguing the trees which have survived— and then plant more of them.
Setback After Setback; Repeat
In the years since Jean-Yves and his wife planted those first trees, setbacks I'd never have imagined have plagued their efforts. Some of these issues have been due to the same lack of infrastructure hurting all of Myanmar's agricultural sector: flooded bridges, potholed roads, winding or nonexistent highways, etc. Getting to & from your cacao farm becomes ten times harder when bad roads turn a one-day trip into two or three days. “To go from here to our place, it’s 650km, and we are just at the beginning of the southern part of Myanmar.” says Branchard.
Flooding this year, and droughts & forest fires in years past have devastated crops. One year, a fire burned down 95% of their trees and they had to start their plantation over nearly from scratch. Yet these are just problems from the physical environment; the Branchards have experienced many more troubling events thanks to the human element. Just in the last two decades, Jean-Yves has fallen ill with dengue fever three times, been threatened by armed robbers and unhappy tribesmen, and had the government trying to evacuate him due to guerrilla fighting.
This isn't even mentioning the kidnapping attempts upon his workers, illegal logging from both the government & private citizens, and people from all walks of life simply stealing his ripe pods right off the trees. Maintaining Myanmar's forests are important to him, but so is his family; over time he's learned when to back off and when to stand his ground. One thing he refuses to budge on are his growing methods: pure, organic goodness, as far as he can cultivate it.
But this strict no-pesticides approach has also served to limit how much land on which he could potentially cultivate cocoa. Cacao trees grow well with areca palm trees, which grow the locally-popular betel nut, and coconut trees. But unfortunately, the two fastest-growing crops in Myanmar are oil palm and rubber trees.
Most people growing oil palm trees prefer the whole tract to be deforested and mono-cropped to maximize profit, while rubber trees are like kryptonite for cacao. They leave any cacao trees grown in the vicinity to remain barren of fruit as long as they may live. Unfortunately, farmers tend to go where the money is, and Burmese farmers are no different. Cacao's still gotta pay the bills.
Building Burmese Chocolate Culture
A value-added chocolate is made from bean to bar, or in this case tree to bar, by craftspeople who use cacao grown in the same country as their product is made. Current chocolate consumption in Myanmar is minimal, value-added and otherwise, and largely focuses on compound-type chocolates imported from Malaysia. If you walk into a convenience store in Myanmar, you'll find a remarkable number of imported chocolates you'll likely recognize: Hershey's, Cadbury, Kraft, etc.
In higher-end shops, you may even find bars like Lindt and Ritter Sport, chocolates which are considered premium in most other global markets. But here, even these brands are a bit beyond premium, because they've gotten a golden stamp of pre-approval: they're imports. Both dark and milk, with and without flavorings, and of all sizes, these imported chocolates are seen as the best stuff money can buy; because for decades, it was.
It took Jean-Yves and his team ten years to figure out cacao processing well enough to make chocolate from it, interruptions aside. Yet currently, Ananda Chocolate is still sold largely to hotels and boutique stores in the country's largest cities, with few clients making direct inquiries. The chocolate is mostly of the dark variety, with a stronger and more bitter flavor than Burmese people are used to.
The young Burmese guys I did a chocolate tasting with preferred more mild, creamy chocolate flavors, sweeter than even the 45% milk chocolates from Ananda can deliver. Ananda bars are more fudge-like in texture, with no added fats beyond the milk powder & only cane sugar as a sweetener. Yet it's hard to know how Burmese people would prefer to consume their chocolate, as Ananda currently only sells chocolate in bar form, and the closest you get to hot cocoa in Burma is iced Milo.
Meet The Only Chocolate Maker in Burma
Jean-Yves and his wife are the founders of Ananda Chocolate. However, they're not only chocolate makers, but also tour guides and travel agents, with a few other ventures always in the works. "Chocolate doesn't pay the bills," laughed Jean-Yves in our interview. His family is actually in cocoa & coffee import-export back in France, and he only got into cocoa after the local coffee export market collapsed in 2003.
Once his cocoa trees seemed to be producing enough to launch the chocolate company, he sourced equipment from Europe and India and dove right into into chocolate. He learned about cacao processing & chocolate making through reading books, asking friends, and a whole lot of trial & error. After starting his cacao farms in 2003, he had to stop with cocoa entirely from 2008 to 2013 due to infighting near the farms. His beautiful packaging now showcases some of the farmers he works with, and the varietals of cacao which survived the first fifteen years.
But growing cacao with other farmers means more work. The couple needs to visit the land of every farmer who wants to work with them, for fear of otherwise having them make a mistake. "It takes much more energy" to grow cocoa, he says. "It's not banana; it's not coconut," which are much more common crops in that part of Myanmar. Finding farmers who meet those requirements has slowed growth, among other things.
Ananda actually used to have its own cafe in Yangon, but they had to close it down a couple of years ago due to a continued tourism slump. There just weren't enough customers to make that particular venture worth it, though that in no way has slowed their momentum.
The Future of Cocoa in Myanmar
Ananada Chocolate currently produces around one ton of chocolate per month, mostly sold to local hotels & businesses for resale. The cocoa side of their business continues to expand, with a new farm in the works and more farmers than ever interested in adding cocoa to their land. Ananda says they pay the farmers they work with two to three times the Fair Trade price, and like in Thailand, most farmers simply grow it alongside their existing crops.
"The way we grow the cocoa in the forest, on existing plantations, most of the farmers, they make double income. They make their regular income, plus the cocoa they grow for us. So they start to like it a lot."Jean-Yves Branchard, Founder of Ananda Chocolate
Ananda has been making chocolate with this cocoa for almost 7 years, but they still have more to learn every day. This is especially true with a changing climate affecting their cocoa in a different way each season, and the ever-lingering threat of each setback from their past. Since Myanmar has yet to plant enough cacao to even consider export, growth in nearby cocoa-cultivating nations seems to be of no threat to the industry. But as Myanmar opens up to more tourism, visitors could be a make or break for the chocolate sector.
Will these new visitors be willing to buy local chocolate? Will they even come to Myanmar at all? With farmers willing to plant cocoa trees on their existing farmland, there is potential for cacao to become a small deforestation deterrent in Myanmar. But with no history of cacao cultivation and relatively attractive options in selling their hardwood, the Burmese cacao industry continues in a delicate state of flux, with no end in sight.
Had you ever heard of chocolate made with Burmese cacao?