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History of cocoa in Solomon Islands

I’ve been exchanging some interesting emails with Grant Vinning, cocoa specialist in the Pacific, who is currently undertaking research for his upcoming book “Cocoa in the Pacific: First 50 years”.  Previously the standard line of thinking was that cocoa was planted in the Solomons around the 1950s, however he’s uncovered the following information that cocoa was being planted in the late 19th century:

The earliest reference to cocoa in the Solomons that I can find is when Charles Morris Woodford, the energetic High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, visited John Stephens at Ugi in the Makira district in 1896.  Woodford observed that Stephens had planted cocoa trees around his house.  Woodford also observed that the trees were “diseased and neglected” suggesting they were planted in the late 1880s.  My source for this is Lawrence’s 2014 biography of Woodford.

Oscar Karl Svensen, a Norwegian who had massive holdings around Marau is another early cocoa planter.  In its extensive obituary in February 1964, the Pacific Islands Monthly listed an amazing number of crops that Svensen experimented with.  One of these was cocoa, something confirmed by Golden in 1993 when he wrote his collection of vignettes of early white settlers of the Solomons.  Svensen left the Solomon a very rich man 1912.  This suggests that his cocoa plantings would have occurred at around the turn of the Twentieth Century.

More support for the notion that cocoa was introduced into the Sols at the turn of the previous century comes from an unusual source.

Cocoa was introduced into Samoa by the 1890s.  Very early on it was clear that Samoans would not work on the plantations.  As a result, the German authorities in Samoa granted permission to the plantation companies in Samoa to import labour.  There were two basic sources of labour – China and Melanesia.  Whilst some companies imported Chinese labour, the biggest company of them all had an exclusivity arrangement to import cheaper labour from other German colonies in the Pacific.  Remember, before 1899 Santa Cruz was under German control.  Robert Louis Stevenson specifically mentioned Solomon Islanders in his 1892 account of troubles in Samoa.  Robb is more precise: some 5700 workers were brought from the Solomons and New Guinea, on three-year indentures on wages of 5 pounds a year .   When their time was up in Samoa, these labourers could have brought their cocoa growing skills back to the Solomons.  They may even have brought back some cocoa beans.  Solomon Islanders were also recruited to work in Fiji.  By the late 1890s, cocoa was an established crop there.  Again, the returnees could have brought this knowledge back with them. Finally, we know that a Trinitaro type cocoa was introduced from Vanuatu into Santa Cruz in 1935.  By that stage cocoa production in Vanuatu was around 2,770 t that came from around 60 plantations.

Ugi is an island off the coast of Makira and Marau Sound is on the eastern end of Guadalcanal and visible from West Makira.  ACIAR is currently doing some genetic mapping of some cocoa in Makira, will be interesting to see those results later this year.

Grant also sent through this rather insightful and timeless snippet from the now defunct Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1933.

Cocoa Solomons PIM July 1933


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Makira – Still no provincial wharf after 50 years of talk

This is footage I took last week of cargo unloading from a ship at Kira Kira, capital of Makira-Ulawa province in Solomon Islands. Fortunately it was a fine day and the sea was calm.

For a province with population of 100,000, it is a national disgrace that there is still no wharf at the provincial capital.

I spent 8 days in Makira in January, including 4 days in Kira Kira. Although I love Makira and our people I was very disappointed with services and development in Kira Kira, which I could see have gone backwards in recent years, despite the abundant natural resources and billions of dollars of foreign aid poured into the Solomons over the past decade.

I have been visiting Kira Kira and Makira for nearly 38 years, since I was born in Solomons. My family village is Tawatana in West Makira.

Some key problems I saw were:

1) Banking – 5 years ago I could access my overseas money from Kira Kira. This time I could not. Here’s a showstopper for any external private investment or tourism.

2) Telcommunications:

  • 2 years ago even though the Internet only worked in Kira Kira, it worked ok. This time it was unusable in Kira Kira ie impossible to send an email.
  • The phone coverage on the island was worse this time than 2 years ago. At my village we have to walk 2 hours to access 2G phone coverage leaking from Guadalcanal island. There is always talk about new mobile towers. As we say “Coconut talk nomoa”, or just bush stories / hearsay.

3) Transport:

  • The fact there is still no wharf in the provincial capital is an embarassment and shame for government and any major donors that put funding into Makira.
  • The Kira Kira airstrip is still grass, combined with the rainiest weather in Solomons this means flights are regularly cancelled. Let’s not mention the terminal building.
  • There is a single road that runs along most of the length of the island (130km), but due to constant rain, most rivers are regularly flooded and bridges washed out. Many rivers/crossings do not have bridges. Some bridges like the important one “crossing” the Waihoura river was poorly designed/built by a NZ construction company and is unusable.

As a half Australian and half Solomon Islander, I am building business in Makira using my own money to help promote rural development, starting with our beautiful cacao (cocoa) beans for the artisan chocolate market, but this is very hard with the poor services and infrastructure in Makira. Makira is one of the least developed parts of the Solomon Islands, with lowest levels of income per capita in Solomons despite being rich in cacao and coconut.

Solomon Islanders wake up, ask more and expect more from your politicians and others who are decision makers. Tell them to stop giving away roofing iron and water tanks and start progressing important provincial infrastructure and services. There is much natural wealth in the Solomons, enough to build a strong economy if there was strong leadership, governance, accountability and also a functional private sector that was not dependent on donor handouts.

If there are others out there that are able to assist in the development of Makira, then please contact me.

Brian Atkin

Founder and Managing Director of Makira Gold, premium quality cacao from Solomon Islands.

Some facts about Solomon Islands:

  • Amongst the highest rates of gender based violence in the world, although many locals (oddly enough males) will dispute this.
  • Ranked a lowly #156 out of 188 on the UNDP Human Development Index, this is the lowest ranking in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Health indicators are very poor, for example 1 in 3 children suffer stunted growth from malnutrition, this is the highest rate of childhood stunting in the Pacific.
  • Ranked #116 out of 190 on the World Bank global “Ease of doing business” index. Seems quite positive, so when looking at the breakdown of the ranking, the “paying tax” score is a major anomaly and is ranked in the 30s, close to Australia. Possibly further analysis required on that category.

This Article is also available on LinkedIn.20180204_134353

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The early days of my cacao journey

I have significant change in my life coming up as I exit from the Public Sector at the end of September so I can focus on Makira Gold.  This morning I remembered a letter I formally wrote to my two Uncles in early 2015, they are the leaders of our tribe in Makira, Solomon Islands.  My late grandfather was our tribal chief and as the eldest son of his eldest son, I would traditionally have inherited this role, however circumstances with me not living there make that impractical.

This letter signified my intentions to support our tribe and community with a cacao social enterprise.

(I have removed the names of my children)


Alick Salomesimao

Aoba Tribe

Peter Adams

Aoba Tribe


Dear Uncle Alick and Uncle Peter,,
I write to you to inform you that I will be returning to Tawatana in mid December later this year to visit my family, reconnect with our village and community, and discuss my ongoing support for our family and community into the future.

Firstly, please accept my sincere apologies for the long time since my last visit in 2007, when grandfather Basil Bunaon’e passed away

I often think fondly of our family and Tawatana, and regret that my responsibilities with my small family and my work in Brisbane keeps me away.

With my wife Meredith, whom I married in the village in 2004, I have a beautiful family with three young children, my 8 year old son Z, 6 year old daughter M and my 4 year old son, E.  I will bring some photos of them for you when I visit in December.
I have not been completely absent from the Solomons, for nearly 2 years I made a number of short trips to Honiara to volunteer my skills and experience in supporting an important Health program to protect Solomon Islands women from Cervical Cancer.  This has been a complex project, in which my mother and I have been working with the World Health Organisation, Ministry of Health and Medical Services, and other organisations.  I am pleased to advise that we have made excellent progress and earlier this year the Solomon Islands government launched a small vaccination program in Honiara for girls to be protected from Cervical Cancer later in life.  This is the same vaccine that protects girls in over 90 countries around the world such as Australia and New Zealand.  I hope that in a few years, the program will extend to protect our girls in Makira.

Mum was also working with the Ministry of Health and Family Planning Australia to start a new project to screen and treat women in the provinces and villages with early stages of Cervical Cancer.  This may be a number of years away from reaching West Makira, but planning this project is the important first step.

Protecting our girls and women from Cervical Cancer is a very important project for me, as our own aunties have passed away from this terrible disease.  I remember when my dear cousin Rex Tarani visited Brisbane about 15 years ago for a journalism course,  and spent much time on the phone talking with his mother who was very sick at the time in the late stages of cervical cancer.
Working in Australia and London over the past 15 years has given me many skills and experience, and I have established a strong network of professional contacts.  During stages of my working career I have been a Director responsible for up to 90 staff within the QLD public service with important responsibilities.  Recently one of my projects was a finalist for the Australian eGovernment awards, and I travelled to Sydney for the presentation.  When I visit I will bring a photo of myself receiving the finalist certificate from a Member of Parliament at the awards ceremony in Sydney.
The more I experience and read about many local and global issues, the more I realise that the way of life that we have in Makira and the Solomons is precious and must be preserved for our children, grandchildren and their children.  Many parts of the world have lost their connection to their land, their environment and their culture, and although they may have money they are not happy and do not have a purpose.

Although we must maintain our culture and land, we must also think about how to connect and prosper in the new global world – and what our place is in it.  We are no longer just influenced by our neighbouring villages and islands, but also what is happening in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Asia, the the European Union and other countries.

We must create opportunities for our children, so that they have a choice for their lives.  They may wish to remain in Tawatana, or they may wish to leave, or come back and forth – but we must provide them with choices and opportunities.  Other than standard healthcare and education, a key differentiator between our children in the village and children in more prosperous countries such as Australia is that children in these prosperous countries have choices in what they do with their lives.
To support our children, families and communities I intend to invest in creating agricultural-based business opportunities in and around Tawatana, initially with Cacao production .  I plan to support and strengthen our local cacao industry so that local families are able to gain a sustainable income from maintaining small farms of cacao trees, and that other locals are employed in areas such as fermentation, drying, transport and storage of cacao.  Initially, through my cousin Roni Maxwell, I have started with buying cacao from local farmers and selling it in Honiara.  Overtime we will look to see how our community of local farmers can improve yields and maximise profits from chocolate.

I call the business “Makira Gold”, which is symbolic of our rich and fertile land in Makira – the foundation of an agricultural business.  I am also fortunate enough to have the support of some Australian business consultants, who are excited by the prospect of providing their experience to mentor and guide an agricultural social business that is committed to positive cultural and social outcomes.
When I arrive in Tawatana with my dad George Atkin in December, I hope to meet with you and other family stakeholders to make plans for using our families and available land resources to provide financial opportunities for the family.

I look forward to my visit and seeing you in December.
Best regards,

Brian Atkin

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A gender lens

Gender-based violence in Melanesia (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, PNG) are amongst the highest rates in the world.

– 73% of women in the Solomons feel that it is justified in some circumstances for a man to beat their wife.*

– 64% of women in the Solomons aged between 15 and 49 who have been in a relationship, have been physically or sexually abused, this violence was often severe.*

– 37% of women in the Solomons aged between 15 and 49 had been sexually abused before they were 15.*

 Gender inequity is a significant problem that I have many thoughts about, suffice to say that improving gender equity in Solomons is one of the long term mission objectives that I have – I spent two years working on national Cervical cancer prevention activities in the Solomons and am now working on my cacao project, of which cacao farming has tremendous potential for empowering women in rural communities.

As well as the direct linkage to gender equity through female cacao farmers, I am also looking at how we can do more for gender empowerment in our cacao business.

We have a few good ideas that we have already made a little progress towards. I look forward to sharing more about this in the future.


* Statistics from Secretariat  of  the Pacific  Community for  Ministry of Women, Youth &  Children’s  Affairs.  2009. Solomon Islands  Family Health  and  Safety Study:  A  study  on  violence  against   women  and  children.  National Statistics  Office. Ministry of  Finance and Treasury,  National Reform  and  Planning. Published by the Secretariat  of  the Pacific  Community 2009.