Why isn’t Colombia famous for its fine cacao?
Even though it is among the 23 countries designed by ICCO as fine cacao exporters, Colombia doesn’t seem to hold the same reputation of its neighbors. Perù, Ecuador and Venezuela are always welcomed in the factories of chocolate makers. Colombian cacao seems to be the disregarded Cinderella instead. Why is it so?
Coca production has always been Colombia’s biggest sword of Damocles. For the past 20 years, farmers in this country have been switching back and forth between coca and cacao crops.
Growing coca is a risky activity for which farmers can end up in jail. Even if demand for coca never seems to run out, the profits are miserable and the biggest cuts are always taken by drug traffikers. On the other side, cacao gives farmers the serenity of a legal activity, but it requires a lot more effort. Moreover, the price paid by predatory buyers and intermediaries isn’t always satisfying. In this scenario, farmers can never seem to win.
Then there are other factors that don’t let Colombia express its great potential for better cacao. For example, farmers are scarcely educated on the genetics of cacao and the best practices to grow it properly. Important factors like grafting techniques and accurate fermentation are still obscure subjects for many cacao growers. Extreme poverty conditions also encourage farmers to take fast cash for poorly fermented beans instead of waiting for developing better cacao to be sold at a higher price.
With such an alarming condition, Colombia runs the risk to fall in the CCN-51 trap like Ecuador. Giving up quality for quantity, or cacao for coca, could be the ruin of an entire country. Selling to international corporations like Cargill or Olam can’t be the solution, since these companies are renowned for buying cheap cacao without caring for flavor. At the same time, the tiny purchases of small craft chocolate makers from around the world can’t make the large-scale impact needed to save thousands of families.
To escape this vicious cycle, Colombian farmers are finding an appealing option in the business model of a family-owned Colombian company, with one of the best reputations in the chocolate industry: CASA LUKER.
Casa Luker is known for being a large-size company that purchases 38% of the total cacao produced in Colombia. It owns some cacao plantations, but the majority of its supply comes from 52 cooperatives in the regions of Santander, Arauca, Huila and Tumaco. These account for more than 7,500 families whose survival revolves around growing and selling cacao. The cacao supplied has to pass rigid quality standards and the price paid is higher than market price for regular cacao. The company then processes the beans in its facility in the city of Bogotà, making different chocolate products.
In its own country, Casa Luker is mostly famous for the production of traditional drinking chocolate. In fact, Colombian consumers have a long tradition of chocolate drinking, and still prefer their chocolate in liquid than in solid form.
On the international scene, Casa Luker is appreciated by clients from all over the world for its chocolate covertures. It needs to be said that in the market of covertures the leaders are multi-million-dollar corporations that buy the cheapest cacao on the market and supply their clients with a steady stream of low-quality chocolate (because chocolatiers, pastry chefs and ice-cream makers mix the chocolate with other ingredients anyway). The peculiarity of Casa Luker covertures is that they are made with cacao that meets the ICCO standards to be called fine flavor. Therefore, it offers an alternative to food professionals who want to serve a better product to their end-consumers.
But how does Casa Luker exactly contribute to the sustainability of Colombian fine cacao?
Surprisingly enough for its large size, the company manages to include ethics, transparency, quality and sustainability in one business model. They achieve these goals thanks to two main factors: research on cacao genetics and education of cacao farmers.
To make fine flavor sustainable, it is important to work with cacao genotypes that can deliver an above-the-standard taste, but can also be productive enough for the farmers to make a living. This is why Casa Luker deploys an incredible amount of resources into studying genetics and compatibility.
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Granja Luker is a renowned cocoa research center that was founded by the company in 1962. Here is where cacao genetics is studied and the best agroforestry systems are developed. Many different cacao varieties, especially Trinitarios, are crossed to study compatibility, and the latest grafting techniques are put to the test. Biology and agronomy are the daily bread of Granja Luker. The crucial factor is that all this knowledge is not kept inside the company, but it serves the entire community of Colombian cacao farmers.
Granja Luker is also an educational center where cocoa farmers come to learn the best practices that improve the quality and the productivity of their crop. More than 35,000 farmers have passed through Granja Luker during the past 50 years. They gathered precious info, practical training and physical tools to better their farming abilities.
Mauricio Salazar, agronomist and jefe at Granja Luker for the past 10 years, reveals:
“It’s crucial to teach the importance of quality to farmers by tasting the final product (chocolate or cocoa liquor). They need to know what happens with good and bad quality. If they don’t taste the final product, they will never understand the importance of waiting for good fermentation and drying.”
Cacao farmers can now bring the new knowledge back to their fields. After the training, they can decide to go their way or to become cacao suppliers for Casa Luker (when quality standards are met). The cost of the training is very affordable even for a farmer’s pocket, and a 20% subsidy is offered to purchase material for plantation renewal and for new plantations.
This is what cacao sustainability should be about: empowering farmers with all the tools they need to stand on their own two feet and take the best care possible of their crop.
Casa Luker doesn’t claim to make the best chocolate in the world (as consistency is crucial to supply many customers around the world and prices have to be competitive on the market). But does Colombia really need to make exceptional cacao right now? Probably not.
Exceptional, rare and very flavorful cacao is attractive only for small craft chocolate makers, but these happen to have a very limited purchasing power. So in order to see a true change in their livelihood, Colombian farmers might be better off producing a cacao that is fine flavor and well-fermented, but still accessible in terms of price for a broader audience of professionals.
Unfortunately, Colombian farmers can’t rely on small craft chocolate makers that buy few tons of cacao per year. The situation can only be changed with projects at a larger scale that can impact the lives of cocoa farmers in a sustainable, secure way, like the work on genetics and the training offered by Casa Luker. In this way, Colombia can at least become a better alternative to big coverture manufacturers who make low-quality products and lack transparency and storytelling behind their products.
The resulting cacao might not be material for craft makers, but the model is sustainable and gives all farmers across Colombia enough tools and motivation not to switch to a low-quality cacao variety like CCN-51, or worse to coca.
Running a successful business that also cares for the future of Colombian fine cacao is the true strength of Casa Luker. Thanks to its work, Colombian fino de aroma is now being delivered to many big clients around the world without losing its integrity, transparency and flavor. Many are now the foreign companies interested in buying Colombian cacao. Casa Luker receives inquiries about the cacao market in Colombia on a daily basis from international chocolate companies interested in investing in the country. The jefe Mauricio predicts:
“In 3 to 5 years, there is going to be a huge demand for Colombian fine cacao.”
Have YOU tried chocolate made with Colombian cacao?
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. (Especially in this case, this article was written out of genuine enthusiasm after spending 5 days in Colombia with the truly exceptional Casa Luker team. What I wrote is what I saw with my own eyes.)