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CEO: Why the Name Ku'ia


May 1, 2020

Theobroma cacao (literally the food of the gods) is the tree that produces seed pods from which chocolate is made. Cacao was first introduced to Polynesia and Hawaii by Germans in the middle of the nineteenth century but it did not become successful as a commercial crop, unlike sugar and pineapple, because it is somewhat tricky to grow on the edges of the tropics due to strong trade winds. The South American rainforest is the native environment of cacao and provides a jungle canopy for protection. Creating the proper environment for cacao to flourish in Hawaii requires finding the proper microenvironment or creating it.

Within the moku (traditional Hawaiian district) of Lāhainā and the ahupua‘a (traditional Hawaiian land division) of Ku‘ia is where Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao is located. Accounts of missionaries from 1824 describe the walk inland from Lāhainā to where Hawaiians were farming “The inland walk to their plantations is the most pleasant in the district, passing, shortly after leaving the beach, through a large and beautiful grove of the cocoanut, and then through a succession of plantations, so thickly covered with breadfruit trees, interspersed with a great variety of luxuriant vegetables, as to appear a continued and well-planted garden”. One can imagine that if cacao had been native to Polynesia, those gardens would have included cacao trees.

Commercial sugar production began in Ku‘ia in the mid-nineteenth century and continued for more than 140 years on land leased from Kamehameha Schools, the trust established by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop to fund a school system for Hawaiian children. The land was cleared for intensive plantings of sugar cane with the resulting loss of the Hawaiian plantations. In 1999, Pioneer Mill harvested its last crop of sugarcane from Ku‘ia and the land became fallow, covered with dry grasses that only became green when rainfall was plentiful which did not occur often, likely as a result of the deforestation of the Mauna Kahālāwai watershed.

In 2013, a former biotech entrepreneur, Gunars Valkirs, decided to combine his family history of farming with his obsession for chocolate and started Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao. In order to protect the sensitive cacao trees from wind and too much sun, a system of windbreak and shade trees was planted to create the sort of environment needed for cacao to flourish. The hillside began to be transformed into a luxuriant green, 10 acres at a time.

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao receives water from the wao akua of Mauna Kahālāwai (West Maui Mountains), where the gods reside and brings it to the wao kanaka, the realm of people where cacao is grown and fashioned into chocolate. Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate was established to make one of the world’s finest chocolates in Lāhainā using the cocoa beans produced on the farm in Ku‘ia.

Ku‘ia means short pointed spear or spearhead and we believe that our company represents a new direction that we hope will be emulated by others. We hope to spearhead a more sustainable way of doing business, one where the benefit to the community is clearly stated, where sustainable practices are employed, and where employees know that they are working not only to make a good living but to support their community.

Mahalo nui loa,

Dr. Gunars E. Valkirs
CEO & Food Safety Officer