Denise Hall: The sweet taste of ethical chocolate in Clonakilty

Q&A: Allison Roberts
Clonakilty Chocolate goes to Ghana to verify ethical origins of its raw materials, says Denise Hall.


According to the latest Survey of Living in Rural Ireland published by the Central Statistics Office, there are more than 350,000 people living in rural areas at risk of poverty.

These people are surviving on net incomes of less than €10,453 per annum.

And every time the employment issue comes up, the question of an efficient broadband service is sure to raise its ugly head. Of course, we have to remember that not everyone has any broadband service at all. And many of us have one that is so slow that there’s often time to put the kettle on or read a page of the latest book.

I have a long-suffering friend who has had to hook up to a peculiar outfit that — for reasons that really are not clear to me — has a customer service department based in Bangladesh.

One day when she was having a problem, a well-meaning guy in the Bangladesh office advised her to go to the north side of her house and hang out of her bedroom window in an attempt to get reception. How he arrived at this conclusion from so far away remains a mystery and not surprisingly, his advice didn’t work.

However, there are some rural jobs — and small and medium enterprises have long been the lifeblood of rural areas. Clonakilty Chocolate is one such enterprise. Its proprietor Allison Roberts has combined a life-long love of chocolate with a passion for creating a small and equitable business that she plans will benefit the whole community.

Chocolate has the uncanny ability to not only be delicious but to rouse extremes of passion in its advocates. It also has a romantic and at times dramatic history, going back to 1500 BC and South America’s Olmec Indians.

For many years chocolate was regarded as a drink only for the elite. But by 1544, Dominican friars who were resident in the region took a group of Mayan nobles to Spain to meet King Philip. And these dignitaries took with them gifts of beaten cocoa. By 1570, chocolate had arrived and was regarded as having medical and aphrodisiac properties.

It quickly became firmly established in Europe.

The first Chocolate House was opened in London in 1657 and by 1674, chocolate wasn’t just drunk but had been solidified into various forms.

It was an Irishman, John Hanahan, who is credited with introducing the delights of chocolate to America, and eventually established his own chocolate empire.

Today, the appetite for chocolate in the West seems to be insatiable.

Most of the chocolate we consume comes from West Africa, where 1.7 million small holders are responsible for producing the beans.

The beans are sold on the commodities exchanges, and unless the small farmers involved are fortunate enough to be partnered with Fairtrade or a similar organisation, the price they receive is frequently depressingly low.

There are other problems associated with the trade, such as the 12,000 children who are suspected of being victims of trafficking.

Unscrupulous traffickers travel into remote villages and persuade parents that they are offering their children — sometimes as young as eight — well paying work in the city. Or they advance the poverty-stricken parents money and the child then becomes security in a system of debt bondage.

Allison Roberts was determined to grow her business with an awareness of these realities. She told me about her life-long passion for chocolate.

How old were you when you first started making chocolate, Allison?

I was eight the first time I had a go at making it with the Girl Guides. And by the time I was 12, I’d set up a small business at my school. I started here in Clonakilty in 2007.

I’ve always been passionate about ethics, so the Fairtrade movement is close to my heart. In the chocolate industry, producers are often abused and child slavery and poverty are rife.

In November, I got the chance to visit Ghana with Fairtrade Clonakilty. It was an extraordinary experience. I met Fairtrade communities and the people who produce my chocolate.

A whole community develops around a Fairtrade cooperative. People are able to invest in schools, running water and sanitation facilities.

It seems as if this trip caused you to reassess a lot of your thinking.

Yes, it inspired me to see just what a small, community-minded business can do in a local area and it also inspired me to see what benefits I could bring to my own community here in Clonakilty.

My goal now is a bean to bar chocolate factory here in the heart of Croakily. I want to provide a healthier and ethical alternative to what’s available in the mainstream.

I import my beans directly from Ghana, so it’s a direct link, and thanks to a partnership last year with Indiegogo, which works on a system of pre-orders, I was able to raise enough money to buy the equipment I need to grind the beans. In fact, it’s being installed today and I can’t wait.

I believe you are going to be running workshops this spring?

Yes and we’re really looking forward to it. I have three people working with me now. First up is our Valentine’s Day tasting and truffle evening.

There will be Bean-to-Bar workshops for adults on Mother and Father’s Day, chocolate making for parents and kids and raw chocolate for beginners. And we have a celebratory Tasting and Tapas evening on March 5 at Molly’s Wine Bar, all welcome.

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