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How this chocolatier is sowing seeds of resilience in Kuʻia

May 2, 2024

Since its launch in 2013, Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate has weathered two existential crises.

In the wake of last year’s Lahaina fires, founder Gunars Valkirs knew his farm-to-bar chocolate company would endure by drawing on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic just a few years before. Like the tenacious cacao trees they cultivate, MKEC has persevered – all with the mission to uplift Maui’s nonprofit community.

“The reason to make chocolate was not because I just loved making chocolate,” Valkirs said. “The reason was to give back to the community.”

Before his confectionary pursuits, Valkirs led a successful career in biotechnology. When he moved to Maui in 2007, he intended to never work another day in his life, spending most of his time kite surfing and gardening. The longtime farmer became fascinated with cacao trees and his love of science and learning coaxed him out of retirement. He teamed up with Daniel O’Doherty, who at the time was studying botany at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and leased land from Kamehameha Schools to start this sweet venture.

Scientists Gunars Valkirs (left) and Dan O'Doherty (right) founded Maui Kuʻia Chocolate in Lahaina with the mission to donate 100% of their net profits to Maui nonprofits. (Photo credit: Maui Magazine)

While the premium chocolate industry in Hawai‘i is still relatively new, the islands are uniquely situated to help solve global problems facing the industry. In other regions like Latin America and Southeast Asia, farms experience 30-50 percent crop loss every year due to fungal diseases and invasive pests. The remote location and unique climate of Hawaiʻi make it an ideal place to grow cacao without any of those issues. Moreover, there are already many cacao species that thrive here, which made the pair enthusiastic about starting this endeavor

“We have all of this diversity at our fingertips without all the barriers of cultivating, which is part of why we can make stuff that nobody else can,” O’Doherty said.

Over the next few years, MKEC transformed 20 acres into a thriving cacao plantation with robust fruit and flourishing vegetation. With its environmentally sustainable solar-powered facilities, it is one of only a few confectioners that source Hawaiʻi cacao.

“You have to pull every lever and make every turn that is necessary to uncover new opportunities,” Valkirs said.

This year, they won their second gold award at the International 2024 Cacao of Excellence competition. Valkirs was also named Entrepreneur of the Year in the Agriculture/Clean Tech category by the Hawaiʻi Venture Capitalists Association, despite the uphill climb in recent years.

The Lahaina fires posed a formidable threat when extreme wind conditions defoliated their orchard, leaving skeletons of once-shady trees under a scorching Lahaina sun. The MKEC crew spent months resuscitating their grove, loading up on water, food and sunscreen to recover their yields. At the same time, the company was cut off from production and sales due to the location of its factory and storefront within the burn zone. The physical and emotional toll of this tragedy tested their resilience once again.

But finally, after seven months of rehabilitation, the first harvest came to fruition in March. Every Sunday, they donate event ticket sales from their factory experience tours to Maui nonprofits and have directly funded wildfire relief efforts from e-commerce. Valkirs recognizes the arduous road ahead for the town’s recovery but he envisions a future where Lahaina businesses thrive once more, buoyed by the support of locals and visitors.

When they do become highly profitable, he looks forward to giving it all back to Maui’s people.

“The only way to recover from this is for the business community to be revived and supported,” Valkirs said.

From the risks of growing cacao in West Maui’s dry conditions to the devastation caused by the Lahaina fires, MKEC’s journey has met these challenges of the pandemic and Lahaina fires with a determined passion for uplifting the Maui community. It is one of the many organizations and businesses KS supports because of our commitment to reviving the agriculture sector in Hawaiʻi through sustainable land stewardship.

Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate stewards a 20 acre cacao plantation in Kuʻia, Maui.

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