What started as an idea to impress his wife has become an ambitious business venture for one Gambian entrepreneur, who wants to transform his small chocolate production operation into the country's own cocoa industry.
Using cocoa plant seedlings from his Ghanaian employee John Addai, Gambian businessman Fady Hocheimy made a chocolate surprise for his wife for Valentine’s Day.
That was three years ago. The first one did not turn out so well, he says, but after many unsuccessful attempts, Hocheimy says it made him more determined to better his craft.
Hocheimy now produces 21 bars every three days -- not bad in a country that does not produce or grow cocoa in any sort of industrial quantity.
"I will continue to perfect what am doing," he tells RFI's Africa Calling podcast. "If nobody wants to buy my chocolates, I will still make chocolate for myself.”
His new product, FH Bites, is a 70 percent organic chocolate bar, with different flavours. The latest is mint, which is set to be launched in December. The 50g to 100g bars will be put on sale in supermarkets as part of a Christmas promotion.
The sole distributor of FH Bites is Fresh Farm, an online and delivery shop in downtown Banjul. It’s a popular product, according to manager Modou Njie, who says they sell $100-worth of chocolate a week. And customers want more.
"The demand has been growing especially among the online buyers," he says. "People are really curious, some of them just can't believe that you can have Gambian chocolate processed or even grown here by Fady," he says.
Most of the world's chocolate comes from farms across West Africa, with Ghana and Ivory Coast producing more than 70 percent of the world's cocoa beans.
A new industry sprouts
Although this is just a humble beginning, Hocheimy aspires for Gambia to export cocoa beans like Ghana within the next fifteen years.
That goal seems a long way off, but Hocheimy is optimistic, adding that he has been selling cocoa seedlings to turn this dream into reality.
One seedling customer is Dabakh Malick, who has a small garden. He hopes to expand his cocoa seedlings into a cocoa plantation.
"Ever since I planted it, it’s been growing fine and it's okay for now,” says Malick. “In the future I might get more and transfer it to the village. If I want to do a plantation I might need to dig a borehole so that it can be watered well,” he adds.
The idea of creating a cocoa industry in Gambia is certainly possible, according to former president of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) Muhammed Jagana.
New cash crop
He urges young entrepreneurs to look into other business opportunities. Three decades ago, Gambia was one of the highest exporters of groundnut in the sub-region. That trend has been declining for the past decade or more.
“It's not only about the chocolate -- there are a lot of by products like cocoa butter and a whole lot of dynamic varieties of products,” says Jagana. “I know it is a challenge but to me somebody has done it, it's possible.”
Chocolate entrepreneur Hocheimy agrees.
“I am not going to ignore the fact that there is great potential here -- if indeed people love these chocolates, the idea of making this business commercial or industrial is always on the table,” he says.