From cacao to chocolate
Colombia’s 100 000 smallholder cacao farms – traditionally run by rural families, often as part of cooperatives – produce the vast majority of the country’s cacao. In recent years, their production has declined as a result of the spread of tree diseases, tree ageing and effects of climate change as well as their limited access to training in environmentally sustainable farming techniques that would boost their output long term. In Colombia as elsewhere, cacao is usually harvested in areas without suitable infrastructure, such as serviceable roads for getting cacao to market. All these factors conspire to keep smallholder cacao farmers in financially difficult situations, fuelling problems like social disintegration and poor access to health services.
Yet global cacao demand remains strong. Indeed, in recent years, supply has failed to keep up with it. To tap profitably into that demand, smallholder cacao farmer cooperatives have a strong incentive to do business directly with chocolate producers. This can help them not only achieve higher margins by reducing their dependence on middlemen, but also boost their product’s attractiveness to premium chocolatiers that value traceability, single-origin production and the possibility of using organic, bio or fair trade labelling.
Building direct relationships with chocolate producers can also give smallholder farmer cooperatives a better understanding of market demands. For instance, whereas productivity and quality may count most on the supply side, chocolate producers have a preference for cacao flavour ‘profiles’.
Facing the challenges just described, two smallholder cacao cooperatives in Afro-Colombian communities in the Valle del Cauca, Colombia decided to collaborate with the Eos Entrepreneur Foundation in this project. The cooperatives had previously cultivated cacao in the traditional way. Effects of climate change, a commitment to environmental sustainability and a need to reach financial stability inspired them to rethink their approach, addressing basic questions such as which types of cacao tree are most resistant to climate change.
The Eos Entrepreneur Foundation’s role was to:
- Bring its long-standing experience and coaches with specific knowledge of the subject matter, such as agronomists, to the project
- Use synergies throughout the value chain, thereby promoting collaboration among the stakeholders and beyond
- Engage directly with smallholder cacao farmer cooperatives, supporting them with passion and respect
- Work with smallholder cacao farmer cooperatives to achieve self-sustainability
GOALS AND EXPECTED IMPACT
The project was able to train and coach farmers in the cooperatives to improve their agricultural practices, especially their post-harvest standards, and was instrumental in helping them strengthen their climate change reduction efforts. In addition, it involved the design and implementation of three (rather than two as originally planned) central cacao collection stations. In the final stages of the project, the Eos Entrepreneur Foundation developed a commercialisation plan and established a value chain discussion forum for the cooperatives.
Despite various challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the project achieved its goals by helping the cooperatives (1) improve the sustainability of their quality cacao cultivation, leading to increased income, (2) establish central collection stations as a key prerequisite for participation in the regional cacao market and ecosystem and (3) initiate regional marketing of their cacao, which by the project’s end had already met with positive feedback from a major chocolate manufacturer.
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