“We have failed ourselves if we are waiting for the government to tell us the way our lives should go.” – Princess Odiakosa
Imagine a box of chocolate truffles on Valentine’s Day handcrafted in Nigeria – sourced from the highest quality cacao beans in Osun State, home-roasted, ground and tempered, then mixed with pure cacao butter, sugar with artisanal techniques to capture the essence of a totally made in Nigeria chocolate experience! A pipe dream? An impossibility? Under the brand name, Kalabari Gecko, Princess Odiakosa has thrown down the gauntlet to take the challenge that one day Nigeria’s name will be synonymous with chocolate.
I met Princess on a Legacy trip to Calabar in 2012. On a bus going to visit the Calabar Museum, we introduced ourselves. Princess, a financial consultant and manager of the training department, direct sales and marketing, at Dbrown Consulting, shared her dream about making hand-made chocolate from Nigerian cacao beans. “My dream is to see a chocolate fountain in the airport and every mall.” I saw the seriousness and determination in Princess’s eyes. However, I knew to produce cocoa from the cacao bean to luxury market in Nigeria was a radical aspiration. There are problems that chocolatiers in other countries do not face such as continuous power outages that ravage Nigeria. Most people would advise: ‘don’t give up your day job’.
In 2014, Princess travelled to Sweden to learn the art of chocolate production. Before she began the course she was passionate about the idea of making chocolate but as she learned about the process, sourcing the cacao bean locally, her passion transformed into a different kind of love affair, loving the many stages of the process. Princess sources the beans from farmers in Osun State where they have been fermented, dried, and cleaned then she roasts and grinds beans to a liquified state and mixes the raw chocolate with her special recipes. “I love experimenting Nigerian cacao bean, Forastero; it is really dark and low in bitterness.” Step by step she researched, developed her brand, and opened her company.
Cacao pods, Forastero, a tree from the evergreen family. Forastero means ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ in Spanish. Ordinary, everyday cocoa with strong, earthy flavours. Found in Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast.
Princess has not given up on her dream nor has she given up her day job. Recently, I visited Princess at her newly-outfitted kitchen and asked, “Why do you think in past decades that no one has had the interest in developing the cacao bean into luxury chocolate in Nigeria?” Princess explains:
“In primary school, we were told to draw a map of Nigeria and within each region draw natural resources, minerals, and cash crops. We colour-coded each product – limestone, yams, groundnuts, palm oil, kola nut, cacao beans, tin, etc. Ten years later that changed, when we drew the map of Nigerian resources, we just slapped a big a barrel of oil in the middle of the country and that was it.
At one point, we [Nigeria] were getting it right. But then, we got distracted. We are people that grab by the stem and not begin at the roots. Cacao bean export was the mainstay of Nigerian economy before the oil boom. The moment oil was discovered, cocoa farming was abandoned. We have oil; we send it overseas to be refined and then [they] sell it back to us as fuel. Same thing happens with cacao beans. We sell our cacao bean at a cheap rate and buy back as cocoa and chocolate which is expensive; it is a multi-billion dollar business outside Africa. We love chocolate but we don’t want to make it.
Yet, in our conversations we blame the government. We say the government is not doing this or that but at a certain age, we have to stop blaming the government. We need to do something. If we all keep talking about a negligent government until we are very old, I think we failed ourselves waiting for the government to tell us the way our lives should go. So, I said I can’t refine petroleum products but I can refine cacao to chocolate. Making chocolate is my passion and my protest.”
Last summer Princess was in England to meet a well-known chocolatier. The woman was late to the appointment. Apologetically, she explained that the summer heat ruined their confectionery and they had to move everything into a tiny, air-conditioned room and then the air-conditioner, itself, quenched. “I looked at her and said, ‘Guess what? The way you are frustrated today, this is my every day!’” Princess emphasises what all of us are aware of in Nigeria that the major obstacle of productivity is lack of constant electricity and the expense/maintenance of generators:
“When I was traveling back from my last trip, it was very difficult to think about electricity. I asked myself why am I stressing myself over electricity? I have a good consultancy career and a generator to run my refrigerator and television. But then I reminded myself that if I had electricity what would be the next excuse? My commitment is beyond a refrigerator and TV, I want to change the rhetoric about Nigeria.
Making chocolate gives me freedom. Freedom to talk. I am doing something for my country. I am making something for Nigerians to give…something sweet and delicious, something of our identity…chocolate, the sweetest part of Nigeria.
Tomorrow, when my children ask me, ‘what did you do?’ I can show them that I left a trail for them to follow, so they can say,‘this woman did her best.’ Making chocolate is for my children; it is for my freedom. This is my journey; I can’t stop.”
Instagram: Kalabari_gecko Website: Kalabarigecko.com
*Photographs are the property of Princess Odiakosa, who kindly allowed me to use them for this article. Do not reproduce or copy without permission from Ms. Odiakosa. All rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required