By Duda Cardoso, Acumen Global Fellow
All chocolate has a history. That delicious treat we all know and love carries a story, starting from the cacao and the farmers who help grow the delicate fruit to the factory workers who manage the process of turning those seeds into decadent sweets. Valentine’s Day—a holiday dedicated to love, passion and, well, chocolate—seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase the men and women responsible for the journey from bean to bar.
Our investee Cacao de Colombia is a social enterprise transforming the lives of Colombia’s rural farmers through none other than chocolate. The biodiverse South American country is home to some of the finest varieties of cacao in the world, but they have gone unexplored until today. Founder and CEO Carlos Ignacio Velasco, a native of Colombia, created the company to produce chocolate that not only rivals the best in the world in terms of taste but, more importantly, draws attention to its origins and the communities who cultivate the cacao. As richly endowed as Colombia is in terms of biological diversity, the regions where cacao is cultivated are some of the poorest in the country, facing extreme poverty rates, a lack of basic services and the aftermath of the country’s 50-year conflict.
Cacao de Colombia has partnered with farmers and indigenous groups across the country to cultivate and develop the country’s many varieties of cacao. Today, the company supports producers in five regions, helping to improve the lives of more than 1,500 families by providing them with training and access to stable pricing twice the market price.
However, the story of chocolate does not end in the field. The transformation from cacao into decadent, to-die-for chocolate is a long, involved process. Once the cacao beans have been dried and tended to by the farmers, they get sent off to the company’s small but mighty local team at its new factory in Popayan. With Acumen’s investment, Cacao de Colombia opened the factory last year and has been able to increase its production by 10 times, all thanks to the team, many of whom come from farming communities.
They are essential to the story of chocolate — and the secret ingredient to the sweet treat that’s become a romantic tradition. So today, on Valentine’s Day, we spotlight some of the Willy Wonkas of Colombia, who work their magic to transform cacao into some of the best chocolate in the world.
Edilmer, 32, comes from a family of coffee farmers in Placer Tambo in the Cauca department, a region whose economy is primarily based on agriculture. As a boy, he worked in the coffee farms until he headed off to school where he studied food science. It was there where he learned about an opportunity at Cacao de Colombia from a colleague. “I had been in coffee my entire life,” he said. “The opportunity to try something different was really exciting.”
In those first few months, Edilmer helped wherever he could, doing a little bit of everything for the social enterprise. Two and a half years later, he is now not only the head of production for Cacao de Colombia but a huge contributor to the company’s growth.
“When I started the company had only two chocolate-making machines capable of making 40 kilos of chocolate a week,” he said. “A year later the company acquired two more machines, and today we are producing 880 kilos a week. The company has taken gigantic steps forward, which motivates me to keep moving forward.”
Edilmer loves training new members of the team and appreciates how much Cacao de Colombia invests in its team. He finds inspiration in the leadership of CEO Carlos Ignacio. “It is clear there is a passion for creating a social impact and helping the farmers, but he also has a business mindset,” Edilmer said. “The decision to build the factory in Popayan [Cauca’s biggest city] shows the great appreciation and love Carlos has for the people in this region. He wants to give them a better opportunity. It’s a company that really cares about its people and pushes them to move forward.”
These days, Edilmer, who remains closely tied to his coffee farmer roots, has his own passions. He dreams of building the Cauca department’s cacao sector with Cacao de Colombia and becoming a provider of cacao for the company. His dream isn’t far off from becoming a reality. Cacao de Colombia’s latest trial of chocolate bar features coffee from Edilmer’s family farm. It sold out in Japan within a day.
“I owe all my knowledge of cacao to Cacao de Colombia,” he said. “We have formed a true team and we look at each person’s strengths and try to ensure they become as successful as possible. I know this will be a business that is sustainable and constantly innovating to have the greatest impact possible.”
Jessica San Juan
Like Edilmer, Jessica, 22, also comes from a farming family in the Varieded Piso Je, another area within Colombia’s Cauca department. The eldest of a family of seven, she is now a mother herself with a three-year-old daughter, Melissa, and another baby girl on the way. Jessica’s parents worked hard to give her an education, so she feels a responsibility to take care of her family. Growing up, she had big dreams for herself and her family but she was never sure how to make those dreams come true. Until she began working for Cacao de Colombia in 2015.
“I used to dream of accomplishing things in life, of building a home for my family,” she said. “Now I have this opportunity, thanks to Cacao de Colombia. There is no other company like it out there. From the income I receive, I’ve been able to help out my mom and sisters and have also saved up enough to build a home.”
Jessica started off packing chocolate, washing models and helping out wherever she was needed. Today, she is in charge of codification, making sure every finished product is coded with correct product information and expiration dates. Her favorite of Cacao de Colombia’s chocolate is from Tumaco, a post-conflict region inhabited by afro-Colombians on the Pacific coast.
She loves that Cacao de Colombia trains its employees in all areas, so she is constantly learning and excited to try out different roles in the future. She is inspired by Mayumi Ogata, a chocolate expert and one of the owners of Cacao de Colombia. She wants to follow in Mayumi’s footsteps and become a “Cacao Hunter” herself, hunting down specialty cacao beans and crafting the recipes that will win best chocolate in the world.
“When you tell people you work for a chocolate company in Cauca, you have so much pride because we are doing something so unique and I personally am learning so much,” Jessica said. “Just look at everything we’ve accomplished, all the prizes we’ve won. It’s a really great company. I hope we can continue growing.”
Dilian, 27, also hails from Cauca, from the small town of Variedad Placer in Tambo. A daughter of a humble farming family, she lost her mother at the age of three. Her father worked hard to provide an education for his three daughters, but life was tough. Dilian attended school up until the age of 16 and completed a handful of technical courses but had to return to farming to help her family.
She worked in the fields with her father and her husband until she heard about Cacao de Colombia. Her daughter, Magdiel, was only seven months old when she heard about the opportunity and Dilian was worried to leave her but knew the job held the promise of a more secure future. “It was a really tough decision,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I could leave her but it was too incredible of an opportunity to pass up.” Dilian and her husband figured out a way to make it work and she started working part-time, eventually moving to full-time as her daughter got older.
“I started out folding boxes,” she said. “Today I can do anything, even an analysis of the chocolate. I can load the chocolate machines in 20 minutes and no longer end up covered in chocolate! Never in my life did I imagine I would be working with such sophisticated machines from all over the world.”
Dilian takes pride in her work and in the quality and presentation of Cacao de Colombia’s chocolate. She has become conscious about the dedication and orderliness that goes into producing some of the finest chocolate in the world. “Here one is learning new things everyday,” she said. “And it’s beautiful to take these lessons back to my house.” She has taken the culture so seriously that she even requires her husband and daughter to leave their shoes at the door when entering their home.
“I love Cacao de Colombia as if it were my own,” she said. “I feel like the company belongs to me and I am so committed and thankful for it. Even if it’s not mine, it’s a piece of me.”
Dilian has taken what she has learned from Cacao de Colombia and started planting 20 cacao plants in her family’s farm. She wants to one day become a provider for Cacao de Colombia and have her own line of chocolate.
Cacao de Colombia’s employees put so much love into producing the highest quality chocolate in the world because they know they are helping to build Colombia’s cacao market and create sustainable futures for rural farmers. Buying one of its Cacao Hunters bars is to reward the dedication of Colombian farmers and the company’s employees and to bring value to every person along its journey. Remember that something as simple as chocolate can bring a lot of love and impact into the world.
Duda Cardoso is a 2017 Acumen Global Fellow.
The Acumen Global Fellows Program is 12-month leadership program for individuals committed to serving the poor who possess the skills, determination and moral imagination to drive social change.