Sarawak cocoa grower’s innovation revolutionises pod splitting

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Michael checks on his cocoa trees at his one-hectare smallholding near his house in Kampung Semadang. — Bernama photo

PADAWAN (Jan 17): Cocoa smallholder Michael John Henry Tao used to dread the harvesting season mainly because of the arduous task of splitting the cocoa pods manually to extract their fleshy white-coloured pulp.

To break open each pod, he had to strike its tough outer shell several times with a machete – a job he found physically exhausting.

There was even an occasion when, after he and his wife Helen Sili spent hours splitting cocoa pods, he told her he could no longer endure it, his eyes resting on the seemingly endless heap of unopened fruits harvested from the 1,000 cocoa trees on his one-hectare smallholding near his house at Kampung Semadang here, about 40 kilometres from Kuching.

That was seven years ago.

Life is now easier for Michael, 56, and other cocoa farmers in the country, thanks to the cocoa-cracking machine he invented which has been recognised as an innovation by the Malaysian Cocoa Board (MCB) and approved by Sirim Bhd.

Using his blacksmithing skills, Michael finished building his prototype cocoa-cracking machine sometime in 2018, after spending six months forging and welding iron, through a process of trial and error. Using leftover iron scraps to make its frame, it cost him only RM500 to build the model. — Bernama photo

As the popular saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Indeed, it was necessity that compelled him to devise methods to ease the task of cracking cocoa pods.

“I felt I had to do something as my whole body would ache after a week of splitting the pods one by one manually,” said Michael, who ventured into cocoa cultivation in 2014.

His smallholding produces about 700 kilogrammes of fruits a year.

Michael, who has blacksmithing skills, told Bernama he decided to use them to create a cocoa-cracking machine.

“It all started in 2017 and it took me almost a year to design the machine, of course with the help of YouTube videos and Internet searches,” he said.

Talk of the town

Sometime in 2018, Michael managed to complete his prototype cocoa cracker after spending six months forging and welding iron, through a process of trial and error. Using leftover iron scraps to make its frame, it cost him only RM500 to build the model.

“The money was solely used for buying equipment to operate the machine such as motor, gearbox, bearings and chain,” he said.

After undergoing several modifications, the new prototype machine can crack open 2,760 cocoa pods in an hour compared to 720 pods manually. — Bernama photo

Soon, his cocoa-cracking machine became the talk of the town, in this case, the cocoa farming community, even prompting visits by MCB officials who suggested that he develop another prototype machine as an innovative product under MCB.

“They provided me with funding as well as technical assistance for patenting the machine,” he added.

He said after undergoing several modifications, the new prototype machine – which can crack open 2,760 cocoa pods in an hour compared to 720 pods manually – received Sirim certification and was officially patented as a product under MCB in 2023.

“It can split 40 to 46 pods in a minute compared to just 12 to 15 pods if we were to use our hands,” he said, adding the machine is operated by electricity.

Award

Fittingly named Michael John’s Cocoa Cracker, the inventor received the Sarawak region cocoa farmers’ innovation award during the launch of National Agricultural Commodity Day 2023 in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 5, organised by the Ministry of Plantation and Commodities.

Michael has produced nine more units of his machine for MCB over the last few years. Three of them are being deployed in Sarikei, Julau and Ketimbong in Sarawak; one each in Johor and Kelantan; and four in Ranau, Sabah. — Bernama photo

“I did not make the machine for monetary gain but for my own use. I didn’t expect my invention would benefit other cocoa farmers as well,” he said, adding that he produced nine more units of his machine for MCB over the last few years.

The nine machines were distributed to various cocoa cultivation areas nationwide. Three of them are being deployed in Sarikei, Julau and Ketimbong in Sarawak; one each in Johor and Kelantan; and four in Ranau, Sabah.

Michael, a government employee working in the healthcare sector, said he went into cocoa cultivation on a part-time basis after receiving cocoa seedlings from MCB in 2014.

In the latest statistics, 1,454 hectares of the nation’s total 5,985 hectares of cocoa plantations are in Sarawak. — Bernama photo

“I owned a one-hectare plot and I felt it was suitable for cocoa cultivation as the land was relatively flat,” he said.

Having been involved in this industry for nearly 10 years now, albeit on a part-time basis, he feels it is crucial for cocoa farmers to consistently participate in courses to stay abreast of the latest techniques and technologies in the industry.

Good prospects

Meanwhile, MCB director-general Datuk Dr Ramle Kasin said Michael’s success in revolutionising the cocoa pod splitting technique would hopefully serve as a stepping stone for local cocoa farmers to expedite post-harvesting processes and enhance the quality of the cocoa aroma.

Malaysia is among the main producers of cocoa in the world, adding that its price rose to RM13 a kilogramme in 2023 from about RM8 in 2022. — Bernama photo

He also conveyed MCB’s desire to collaborate with industry players to adopt wider utilisation of the cocoa-cracking machine in cocoa plantations across Malaysia in order to alleviate the burden on farmers and ensure the quality of their output.

Pointing to the commodity’s prospects, Ramle said Malaysia is among the main producers of cocoa in the world, adding that its price rose to RM13 a kilogramme in 2023 from about RM8 in 2022.

“So hopefully, with the growing national economy, cocoa farmers will seize the opportunity to increase their productions,” he said.

He said as of December 2023, Malaysia had a total of 5,985 hectares of cocoa plantations comprising 3,444 hectares in Sabah; 1,454 hectares in Sarawak; and 1,087 hectares in Peninsular Malaysia. — Bernama

MCB wants to collaborate with industry players to adopt wider utilisation of the cocoa-cracking machine in cocoa plantations across Malaysia in order to alleviate the burden on farmers and ensure the quality of their output. — Bernama photo