Cacao 2014-10-15 at 4.15.30 PM.pngEconomy Human Well Being 

Belize’s Chocolate Revolution

By Maya Granit and Emily Stone

We have a chocolate problem. And it’s not just about the impact it will have on our waists this Halloween. It’s even bigger than that.

Here are the top three most important things chocolate lovers need to know:

  1. Smallholder cocoa farmers are underpaid and impoverished: Ninety percent of the world’s cocoa is produced by five million small-producer farmers in West Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These farmers are getting minimal pay, with the majority of cocoa farmers globally living on less than $2 per day. Farmer poverty is widespread, while big manufacturers are capturing the vast majority of profits from the nearly $100 billion global chocolate industry.
  2. Demand for cocoa is growing, but farmer income isn’t improving: An estimated 4.4 million tons of cocoa (or cacao) are produced every year. That demand is expected to grow over 30 percent in the next five years as countries like China, India, and Brazil start eating more chocolate. The majority of farmers are unlikely to see the benefit of this growing market. In fact, many farmers have given up on cocoa and switched to other more lucrative, often environmentally destructive crops like palm oil. The average age of a cocoa farmer in West Africa, which produces about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa, is 51—which means farmers’ kids are abandoning the crop. So unless you’re paying more for your chocolate bar and know where your chocolate maker is sourcing their cocoa, unfortunately you’re probably just feeding (and eating) the problem. 
  3. Reliance on Fair Trade labels and other certifications to solve these problems hasn’t worked, and likely won’t in the future: The root cause of cocoa farmer poverty is that the revenue farmers receive does not cover their cost of production. Farmers, lacking resources to invest in increasing their cocoa yields, are locked in a cycle of poverty. Certification schemes work by adding a premium for farmer cooperatives onto the global commodity market price, but the certifications are expensive to obtain and in some cases the extra income from selling certified cocoa may not even cover the costs of certification. And the premiums generally go into a bank account managed by the farmer cooperative for social projects, not into farmers’ pockets. The impact of these premiums on driving improvement in livelihoods at scale has not been proven, and does not directly address or solve the root cause of cocoa farmer poverty. 

But there is a new, more ethical chocolate movement going on as we speak, with at least 50 new chocolate makers in the U.S. popping up over the last three years. Think microbrew beers and specialty coffee roasters—we are similarly at the beginning of a chocolate revolution. In fact, there’s probably a new small-scale chocolate maker in your city or state.

Current cocoa demand in this new market is estimated at a relatively small but quickly growing 7,000 tons around the world. However, chocolate makers still have trouble finding cocoa with the right quality, social impact, and consistent supply to satisfy their customers, because of those top three problems we mentioned earlier.

In rural, southern Belize, a community of indigenous Maya is working to solve this problem. Founded in 2010 by a team of entrepreneurs, chocolate makers and cocoa farmers, the social enterprise Maya Mountain Cacao connects over 300 small organic cocoa farmers to the fine chocolate industry through direct, transparent relationships. Farmers participating in this model are getting a stable price of more than 100 percent of the world market price paid directly to them the same day they harvest. This creates real incentives for farmers to grow production of this valuable crop and drives reforestation of previously cleared jungle, while delivering premium quality cocoa to some of the world’s best new chocolate makers.

This new model is driving real results for farmers and their families. Incomes have grown over 20 percent since 2012, and school attendance for farmers’ children has increased 85 percent. Farmers are planting over 80,000 more cocoa trees this year to help fulfill market demand for their tasty, organic cocoa beans.

Chocolate makers love it too. Demand for Belize’s organic cocoa has grown exponentially; especially considering the country was not even on the map for U.S. chocolate makers before Maya Mountain Cacao started operations in 2010. Today, 7 chocolate makers currently buy cocoa from Belize, with 75+ on the waitlist.

So, if everyone loves the cocoa, and Belize loves making it, what’s the issue? As is the case for cocoa farmers globally, unless we support and invest in farmers, we won’t be able to grow cocoa production. That’s why Maya Mountain Cacao has partnered with the local community to plant a world-class cocoa training center in the form of an organic, 120-acre Demonstration Farm. The land being developed was previously at risk of destruction by slash and burn farming. With this Demonstration Farm, the land will be protected through cocoa-based organic agroforestry. (“Agroforestry” is the technical term for planting diverse crops and trees. Where you plant cocoa trees, you also plant timber, like mahogany and cedar, and other crops like plantains, avocados, plums, and palms, which can all be sold as side products, or used in the home.) By combining traditional farming practices with modern science, the community is able to preserve their customs and heritage, while participating and driving value from the modern market.

Belize is just a drop in the bucket in the world’s annual cocoa production. However, cocoa farmers and buyers globally have an opportunity to learn from the lessons set by this relatively tiny farming community. If we set up more training centers globally, which similarly balanced modern science and traditional practices, we would enable more farmer communities to benefit from this growing industry. Moreover, from this example we’ve seen what happens when cocoa farmers and chocolate makers collaborate directly. By removing middlemen and shortening the value chain, both farmers and buyers increase their value and quality, ultimately bringing large-scale social impact to farming communities and driving systemic change in this tasty but troubled industry.



Maya Granit is managing director of Maya Mountain Cacao.

Emily Stone is the co-founder and CEO of Maya Mountain Cacao in Belize and the global Uncommon Cocoa Group.

Consider contributing to their Kickstarter campaign, which will raise money to finish developing the Demonstration Farm.

[Photo courtesy of Maya Granit]

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