They say we are running out of cacao.
Big flashy titles have sentenced us all to an ugly reality by 2020. One of the best foods in the world is about to disappear. The reasons are several and varied. From pod diseases to adverse weather conditions, the fear is served.
This daunting “news” about chocolate has been going around for the past 5 years or more. On one side, consumers are scared believers. On the other side, experts couldn’t roll their eyes any harder. A potential cocoa shortage is for them a silly idea, or worse, a misleading belief that will allow big corporations to take questionable actions in the future.
Whether cacao is really running out or it’s all part of a big conspiracy, we know something for sure: farmers are tired of just growing cacao.
Craft chocolate makers pride themselves on paying a Premium price to their cacao suppliers. They want to make good chocolate, so they pay more for high-quality cacao beans. Consumers are happy as well, as they know that they are contributing to improving the lives of cacao farmers. It seems like a win-win situation.
Unfortunately, money can’t buy me love.
We often forget about the human side of cacao farmers. They are not machines; the more coins we insert, the better the product that will come out. It’s people we are talking about. With desires, ambitions and dreams of their own. Money is just one of the many driving forces in their lives.
Employees quit well-paying jobs because they choose quality of life and personal fulfillment over money. In the same way, the surplus paid by craft chocolate makers don’t make farming any less physically demanding and any more satisfying.
So it happens that cacao farmers set up more gratifying businesses. They aspire to more than just farming. Tired of giving away their precious cacao, they want to use it for something that benefits them in the long run.
They start making chocolate.
“The family was told they were sitting on Black Gold.”
Vicki Chandler, together with her partner Jorge Salazar Garcia, runs La Iguana Chocolate, family business that now combines farming with chocolate making in Costa Rica.
“The catalyst for when we really started making chocolate was when a visiting Swiss chocolatier taught Jorge to temper chocolate and they began to run chocolate tours in 2009 to share our journey.
With knowledge came passion, and the certainty that cacao could be grown organically and sustainably. Chocolate could be made and sold in a way that truly benefited the producer, but only if we removed all the people in between, and the farmer became the chocolate maker, the chocolate maker the farmer.
From then on, it started to seem more and more like a plausible business idea.”
Even though chocolate making has been a gradual transition, La Iguana Chocolate sees greater profits from selling its own finished products compared to selling cacao beans.
Less than 2000 miles away, Nina Chocolates in San Martìn, Perù makes tree to bar chocolate using the cacao from their own farm in Chazuta and other farms in the region. The idea of making chocolate started for practical reasons.
“For quality purposes we have a cacao laboratory. Among other activities, we do our cacao liquor to taste how our fermentation went.
If we didn’t have a good liquor, it wasn’t just about the fermentation we did. It was about the harvest (unripe beans do not ferment because there is not enough sugar). That’s when we started to do chocolate to show the farmers with chocolate samples of their trees and their harvest procedures how important they were.
After one year of experimenting and improving our fermentation and getting high quality beans, which we also sell, we had the idea of making a chocolate brand. We gave samples to well known people in the industry and they encouraged us.”
The proximity to the raw material makes it easier for La Iguana Chocolate and Nina Chocolates to keep the cost of making chocolate relatively low. Unlike foreign chocolate makers, they don’t have to deal with the burden of importing cacao beans.
Both companies also highlighted another advantage. In case of bad flavor, they can look back at the entire process, quickly realize where the problem is and tweak the harvesting and post harvesting procedures.
However, running a business in the rural areas of tropical countries carries other big problems.
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Vicki from La Iguana Chocolate admits:
“We have the tools (many handmade contraptions) that allow us to roast, crack, winnow, grind, refine, press butter and make chocolate bars. However, it is still very small scale, and the majority of steps are still done by hand.
Undoubtedly, we do not have to worry about transporting beans to the other side of the world, but we do have to source refiners from the other side of the world at great expense if we ever hope to ‘scale-up’.
I often feel if I was setting this business up in the UK, it would be so much faster, simpler and easier. I come back to the UK each year and sit in front of my computer. Connected to fast internet, I order things online and drag them back to Costa Rica in my suitcases, including a premier grinder as hand luggage once! And we are ‘lucky’ as we can ‘exploit’ me to get access to things we can’t even dream of in Costa Rica.”
In the countries of origin it is hard to access the right equipment to make chocolate.
Nina Chocolates reveals another difficult aspect of a tree to bar business:
“Because of regulations, it takes a long time to formally start a business here in Perù.
For example, we had to send samples of our chocolate to a laboratory all the way to Lima because here in San Martìn they don’t do sanitary permissions. Moreover, every time we want to create a new flavor or addition to chocolate, we have to get the sanitary permission number to put on the box.”
At the moment, both tree to bar companies only sell within the borders of their own countries:
“We sell our chocolate locally and we send to Lima special orders. Now we want to open the market in Lima and sell our chocolates in stores. We definitely plan to export, because Peruvians are not used to eating dark chocolate; just people from Lima are starting to.” – Luz from Nina Chocolates.
“Right now we only sell in Costa Rica. One of the things we are trying to decide is how big we want to be. We don’t want to wake up one day and find that we are suddenly a cooperative with 20 families growing cacao so that we can slap a La Iguana Chocolate sticker on the chocolate and sell it for loads more than we paid for the beans. For us, we want to find a balance that sits well with our conscience” – Vicki from La Iguana Chocolate.
Many cacao farmers in the countries of origin have now developed the desire to make their own chocolate. Taking advantage of the proximity to the cacao trees, they give their best to fight all the downsides of such challenging business. This is why many of them get in touch with chocolate makers and experts to help them improve their skills.
In the next years, a lot of craft chocolate made directly in the countries of origin and owned by local companies will be seen on the market.
What tree-to-bar chocolate brands do YOU know?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.