Exclusive Interview with Yinghao Chen: Building the First Cacao Farm for Regional Revitalization in Taiwan

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When it comes to cacao, would you think of a cup of hot drink, or the chocolate on Valentine’s Day? For tech entrepreneur Yinghao Chen who retired to Taiwan from his career in China, each cacao plant represents his love for his aging father with dementia.

To take care of his father, Chen returned to Tuku, Yunlin County in 2016 and started an organic cacao plantation. In the interview with MOST Center for Global Affairs and Science Engagement, he talked about how his love for his father grew to become the love for his native land, and how he built the first cacao farm for regional revitalization in Taiwan.

Entrepreneur turned farmer out of love

After he returned from China, Chen consulted with multiple physicians, and realized dementia was irreversible. Based on physician advice, he opted for “gardening therapies” to slow down the symptoms of his father. He spent millions to purchase 1.5 hectares of idle farmlands at Tuku, and created a therapeutic leisure farm for his father.

For farm management, Chen had to learn from scratch. Incidentally, he was told that polyphenol in cacao was helpful to prevent cancers and dementia, and enhance blood circulations. With higher economic values, lower water consumption, and hard shells against pests, cacao was very suitable for organic farming.

He said people were curious about why he planted cacao trees, instead of buying chocolate directly. “Chocolate on the market often has added sugar and other additives in the production which could outweigh the health benefits,” said Chen. To offer the most organic and natural cacao to father, Chen decided to “grow it himself”.

Besides taking care of his father, Chen was also involved with community innovation in Tuku. As they strolled in the town, he noticed many seniors sat idly in front of their homes all day long. As one of the most rapidly aging communities, Tuku’s local populations had been continuously shrinking since 1973. “After I graduated from junior high school at 15 years old, my parents told me to leave Tuku, as everyone believed there were no prospects here.” In response to the aging population issues in the countryside, it was imperative to attract the young people to move to Tuku.

NT$300 million cacao farm for regional revitalization

To attract young people back to hometown, Chen participates in National Strategic Plan for Regional Revitalization led by National Development Council. He plans to invest NT$300 million to create a cocoa estate where he can not only produce eco-friendly chocolate without chemical additives, but also establish an experiential learning program where he can educate the public about organic farming. Furthermore, he wishes to create a world-class chocolate academy and host an international competition for cocoa beans. He aims to establish the first cocoa estate in Central Taiwan with the whole range of operation from “tree to bar”.

In the process, Chen admits that recruitment has been challenging. As resource limitations and brain drains have long been a challenge for Yunlin, it is urgent for him to work with local universities to co-design curriculums to make the students market-ready upon graduation. So far, he has been working with National Formosa University, YunTech, and TransWorld University. Some of these graduates have already been a part of Chen’s team at Tukuyi Cocoa Farm.

The investment plan is divided into three phases. The first phase of office construction and landscaping is completed. The second phase, including a primary processing plant, hands-on experience areas, and two advanced tech-based greenhouses, is expected to open early next year. Chen hopes to design buildings worthy of the Red Dot Design Award and make them iconic landmarks at Tuku. In the third phase, he will establish a chocolate academy, evaluation and teaching facilities based on international standards, so his products could be export ready.

From regional revitalization to innovation

Since 2015, cacao from Taiwan gradually became recognized in international competitions. After establishing the plantations in Tuku, he aims to expand southbound to Pingtung. In the next steps, he will support smallholders in contract farming.

Unlike the prosperous and open cities in northern Taiwan, Chen believes invoking a sense of local belonging in Yunlin is the way to retain younger generations. His farm is committed to creating an open-minded corporate culture, working with local farmers’ associations and agricultural industries. He is confident this process will reinvent the local agriculture and service industries.

Looking into the future, Chen hopes to combine his cocoa with other local produces in Yunlin to create chocolate with local flavors. He wishes to make a name for Tuku with each of these chocolates, offer opportunities and a sense of achievement for the younger generations right here in their hometown.

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