If you are a craft chocolate lover, you’ve already heard the words “poor cacao farmers” way too many times.
Sometimes this comes from the mouths of well-intentioned chocolate makers who have big dreams to change the world. Some other times it comes from big chocolate corporations that need to pretend like they actually care. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter where those words come from. They are plain wrong in any case.
To be fair, poor cacao farmers have technical reasons to be addressed that way. They do live in poverty and are the people paid the least for their job. The rest of the world enjoys the fruits of their work as a treat, a plus, an extra to give pleasure to their lives. But those who work hard in the field don’t feel any pleasure in living in sweat and mosquitoes all day long. To them, cacao means making a living, not savoring chocolate in a $45 tasting class.
However, if we keep treating them like charity causes, nothing is going to change for them.
From the comfort of a big European capital or a busy city in the US, it takes no effort to make lots of assumptions about farmers in the countries of origin. Without ever being there, without ever talking to them, without ever living their lives. We make of all cacao farmers a big pile of poor, powerless and defenseless people that need to be saved. Boy, are we on the wrong track!
Once you enter their houses and talk to them like real human beings instead of statistics on a graph, your perception flips upside down. If you have the chance to participate to the Academia de Cacao organized by Ingemann Fine Cocoa in Nicaragua, just go. You’ll meet so many different farmers with different goals, personalities and beliefs that you’ll never dare to put them all in the same stereotyped group again. But mostly, you will regret every time you thought of them as poor people.
You’ll realize they have a brain, a soul and a willpower. Like any other man and woman with a business, they make the best decisions for themselves and the fruits that they reap are directly proportional to the efforts they make.
There is Juan Flores that lives with his family in one of the most remote places you might ever go to. He is one of those farmers that are hardcore fans of cacao. You can tell by the way his cocoa farm looks: well-structured, clean and organized. He is the equivalent of that neighbor we all know that trims the grass in his garden every other day. For example, no heavy animal is allowed on Juan’s farm because it will “mess up the soil” and compromise the productivity of the cocoa trees (do you understand his obsession now?). But no wonder he holds cacao in high regard. Cacao completely turned his life around.
After planting the baby cocoa trees provided by Ingemann Fine Cocoa, he had to wait 3 years for them to start bearing fruits. He says that was the hardest part, but once you get past that, cacao rewards you good for your patience. Thanks to the Theobroma, he could improve the livelihood of his family with a bigger house, better food, employing family members and sending his daughter to University (a cause you can sustain by contributing HERE). However, and this is a BIG however, it wasn’t only cacao the secret of his success. It was his attitude towards work that made him successful.
Most cocoa farmers in Nicaragua think short term, fast cash and don’t take cacao seriously. But Juan is different. He keeps track of every single component of his business: profits, assets, liabilities, employees, salaries. No, he didn’t go to business school, and grew up in poverty like all the other farmers. But he always had a knack for “keeping track” of things to understand what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be changed. The numbers on his notebook are simple, but not many farmers would take on the burden of constantly updating them. Cacao is Juan’s success, but also Juan is the fertile ground where cacao can succeed. Put cacao in other hands and you shouldn’t bet on the same results.
Then there is Ruben. He lives with his big family and they are all extremely religious. When you visit them, you might catch them in long prayers to make sure that God keeps their lands generous and productive. Until a few months ago, Ruben could care less about his cacao trees.
Even in this case, the look of his cocoa farm tells it all: unpruned trees that grow all over the place, full of moss on their branches and many overripe and sick fruits. When you let nature do its course, cocoa trees easily turn into a messy, unproductive jungle.
Ruben gave up cultivating cacao to focus on other crops like coffee and bamboo. Because even as a “poor farmer” you still get to decide what you’d rather grow based on your personal preferences (something that will also make you money, of course). But with coffee prices falling to an all-time low and bamboo not exactly bringing rivers of clients at the door, he decided to give cocoa another try. Funny thing is, when Ruben looks back at how much money cacao made him in the past, he can’t really give a reason on why he gave it up in the first place.
He promises that he will put more effort into his cocoa trees from now on. May his faith in God and determination bring him long-term success.
Another farmer encountered during a hike is actually about to sell his cocoa farm. Almost 70 years old and near retirement, he now thinks of cacao as way too much work to handle. He doesn’t want to do it himself anymore, neither he wishes to leave it to his children. The pods in his patio today might just be the last ones he will ever collect. He dreams of living off lower maintenance crops like corn and beans.
Don’t get it twisted. These are not “wealthy” farmers. We are officially in the poorest country in Central America where even the capital Managua might look like a ghost city at times. But even in extreme poverty, farmers still have a range of choices they can make.
They are not stuck with a specific land or crop. They can switch crops and even move to another land. They can decide to be lazy or work hard. They can think short term and look for easy money, or they can focus on making their buyers happy with honest practices and good quality. If a client doesn’t pay well, they will prefer to sell to the other clients that pay more. If a farmer takes good care of his land and is diligent with his work, he will find more business opportunities than a farmer who does the bare minimum for some fruits to show up. If cacao doesn’t make them money, they will plant another crop.
They are no different than any other business owner: they take pride in their achievements, look for the best opportunities and reap the benefits depending on their efforts. They have their own distinctive personalities, goals and ways to approach their work. The same goes for farmers that are not owners of a land, but work on someone else’s land. They can decide to be diligent and reliable, or to get drunk after payday and show up four days later once the hangover has passed.
It’s true that cacao farmers live in challenging situations, are not paid enough and often need some external help, but treating them constantly like powerless and defenseless people is just not fair to their intelligence. For things to change, it’s time we bury our prejudices, assumptions and stereotypes, and start treating them more like entrepreneurs than charity causes.