Calculating the Cocoa Comeback: With International Markets Hungry for Quality Chocolate Products, Cacao Growers in Ecuador Are Revitalizing an Industry of Historic Relevance and Significant Revenue

By Luxner, Larry | Americas (English Edition), May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Calculating the Cocoa Comeback: With International Markets Hungry for Quality Chocolate Products, Cacao Growers in Ecuador Are Revitalizing an Industry of Historic Relevance and Significant Revenue


Luxner, Larry, Americas (English Edition)


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

About 40 hules northeast of Guayaquil, near the town of Vinces, a highway sign proudly welcomes visitors to the obscure Republica del Cacao.

The name conjures up images of a whimsical new country rather than the cultivation, processing, and marketing of the mare ingredient in chocolate. Yet once past the security guards overlooking this little eight-hectare "republic," it is clear that this collection and distribution center for cacao is no ordinary business venture.

The company's mission statement is placed at the entrante, earved in wood for all to see: "Our mission: to support the strategy of the Republica del Cacao brand, by supplying premium quality traceable cacao products, supporting producers with agricultural practices that are certified for quality, and improving the productivity of the fields as well as the lives of our suppliers."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Rafael Aguirre manages Republica del Cacao, a division of Confiteca C.A. He says the parent company--which has annual sales of $120 million and is one of Ecuador's largest producers of candies, lollipops, gums, and other delights--has invested $1 million in the project.

"We chose Vinces in the province of Los Rios because here, you'll find the biggest and the most productive haciendas in Ecuador," said the 48-year-old entrepreneur as he led Americas on a tour of the company's facilities and a short history lesson on the importance of cacao beans to Ecuador.

"At one time, each owner had 2,000 to 3,000 hectares of cacao, and they didn't have to pay their workers very much. Then came agrarian reform in the 1960s, when the government took away land from the biggest owners, divided it into small parcels, and gave these parcels to peasant farmers," he explained. "In the province of Los Rios, there were about 30 to 50 haciendas in total. Now, just within a fifteen mile radius of Vinces we have approximately 2,200 owners with ah average of only two hectares each."

Those farmers arrive by truck to the collection center, where they're paid $95 per quintal (100 pound bag) of dry beans, which is equivalent to 270 pounds of grano en baba (fresh beans). "If they sell to me fresh, it'll weigh more, so I take off ten percent for weight," Aguirre said. "But I'm also saving them the work of fermenting or sun-drying it, eliminating five days of their labor."

From the collection center, the beans go through the various stages of processing under thatched-roof buildings painted in rustic shades of green. Meanwhile, GPS units pinpoint the location of each supplying farm, allowing the venture to know exactly where each bean came from, in line with a growing trend toward "traceability," which until recently was more associated with fine wines, premium cigars, and gourmet coffee than bars of chocolate.

Last year, Republica del Cacao had $500,000 in revenues, but in 2009, thanks to record world prices for cocoa, Aguirre is predicting that sales will triple to $1.5 million of more. Those prices, now running at around $2,800 per metric ton, are fueling a revival of Ecuador's once-proud cocoa industry and offering hope to the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the taste buds of North American, European, and Asian chocolate connoisseurs.

David Sabando has been a farmer since the age of fifteen. Now 33, he's still younger than most of the cacao trees he tends. In 2004, Sabando and 80 other small producers in the province of Manabi organized themselves into a farmers' cooperative called Corporacion Fortaleza del Valle. With help from a German development agency and other nongovernmental organizations, it has since grown into Ecuador's second-largest cocoa co-op, with 578 members and 1,500 hectares under cultivation.

"When we began, the children of the producers weren't studying in school, and producers didn't have any hope of improving their lives. …

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