Nahua Cacao: A Vision of “Cacao Renovation” in Costa Rica

A cacao processor turned specialty chocolate boutique has a plan to renew the vitality of cacao forests and improve the lives of Costa Rican farmers. Nahua Chocolate and Cacao, a certified B Corporation, intends to support smallholder farmers in improving their livelihoods by providing technical assistance and a reliable market.

Cacao has been a crop of great social and spiritual importance in Costa Rica for many centuries, just as it has been in its neighboring countries which once comprised Mesoamerica.

Costa Rica experienced its cacao glory years in the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, as a fungal disease called Monilia Pod Rot (Moniliophthora roreri) began to spread in the late 1970’s, production in the region dropped off significantly. The threat of crop disease, coupled with a sustained period of low prices, difficulties associated with the acquisition of planting supplies, and weak incentives for cacao farming, resulted in farmers abandoning their cacao plantations in favor of other crops. Some farmers simply allowed their cacao forests to overgrow, while others chose to focus on other forms of agriculture for their family’s sustenance. Further exacerbating Costa Rica’s once fruitful cacao sector, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture closed its Cacao Program, paralyzing cacao related production, activities and industries.

Setting the Scene: Nahua and Costa Rica’s Cacao Industry

Today, given the growth in global demand for specialty, fine flavor cacao, Costa Rica’s cacao market is undergoing an impressive resurgence with Nahua Cacao and Chocolate helping lead the way. Nahua refers to the indigenous group of Aztec origin who settled throughout Central America and Costa Rica, and were the first to unlock the potential of cacao as the ‘drink of the gods’. Nahua is led by its founder and CEO, Juan Pablo Buchert, currently serving as chairman of the Costa Rican Chamber of Fine Cacao. The company manages a smallholder farmer network and a post-harvest facility in Upala, also the site for Nahua’s Cacao Renovation program activities. Nahua’s impact advisor, Justin Eldridge Otero, helps develop and implement programs that benefit smallholder cacao farmers and their families.

Nahua began as an exporter of small quantities of premium cacao beans in 2010. In 2011, the company launched a flagship boutique chocolate store in San Jose, Costa Rica. In 2015, Nahua began exporting larger quantities of premium cacao and soon after became a certified B Corporation with an overall score of 101 as compared to a median score of 55 according to the company’s 2016 impact report.

When asked about this shift, Juan Pablo responds, “if we kept buying cacao for our own production we would be able to continue selling great chocolate, but we wanted to help the cacao sector and farming communities in particular. In order to accomplish this, we needed to begin buying from farmers in larger volumes, otherwise, the positive impact on farmer livelihoods would have been minimal.”

When asked about the company’s chocolate production operations Juan Pablo adds, “It has been our dream to establish a bean-to-bar brand because the process of going from a raw cacao seed to chocolate is quite magical. But more importantly, it gives us a very strong link with the producers which allows us to continue developing support programs. Even though cacao is globally produced, sold and traded, the benefits of these economic activities generally do not reach the farmers, so we felt compelled to involve them more directly.”

Nahua also prefers to purchase fresh cacao “in order to have complete control over the quality of the finished product.” Juan Pablo explained that “Even when you get very good genetics and very good cacao, if you don’t have strict control over the post-harvest processing then you can’t get the right product. This is important to us since we aim to produce very fine cacao and chocolate products. Another benefit is that our processing facility is located very close to where the growers live in Upala and Guatuso, two rural regions in the Alajuela province of northern Costa Rica close to the Nicaraguan border. These are both places that are very marginalized economically and lack services — that’s why we try to work with as many smallholder farming families as we can.”

Upala and Guatuso are ranked in the bottom 5 districts in the country based on a standard of living index which includes access to services such as healthcare, education, banking, internet, and water. There is only one hospital in the area, no easy options for banking, and very few schools which also tend to be unstable. Finding employment in is difficult and most people work for private agricultural companies producing pineapples, rice, beans and cattle. The working conditions are typically tough and their salaries are low. Juan Pablo believes these jobs “take time away from farmers that they could otherwise dedicate to working on their own land, time that could be spend working to build up their own cacao’s productivity.”

Cacao Renovation Program: (Re)designing Systems of Support

These social circumstances inspired Nahua to start its Cacao Renovation Program — an effort to establish direct relationships with farmers with the goal of supporting increase productivity and incomes and improved livelihoods. The Cacao Renovation Program consists of three consecutive stages: the first involves basic technical assistance and training workshops, the second consists of more involved and specialized support with tasks such as pruning, cropping, disease control, and pest control, and the third is focused on helping farmers identify and address the nutritional needs of their crops. According to Juan Pablo, “The plan is designed to gradually work through the three stages and by the third stage farmers should be in a position to sustainably manage their cacao forest and eventually double their production.”

Nahua’s program is essential to improving yields as most of the cacao farms encountered are “mismanaged and poorly maintained.” Juan Pablo reflects on the status of many smallholder farms, “ when you walk through the forest you see that trees have not been pruned or trimmed in years and that there has not been any fertilizer or organic matter added to the soil. As a result of decades of extracting cacao from the forest, the soil and plants start to wear down.” Nahua’s team hopes that its Cacao Renovation Program will help restore balanced nutrition to fields and teach farmers about proper maintenance. Nahua’s priorities with smallholder farmers focus on social impact and amelioration of labor conditions, expected to accompany increased yields, rather than the pursuit of organic certifications. Juan Pablo and his team believe that, with respect to cacao farming, “being organic does not necessarily result in any additional benefits to the producer.” For example, he explains, a farm’s organic certification does not guarantee a lack of forced labor. Nahua prefers to focus on “improving productivity and maintaining stable cacao prices as a way of directly increasing incomes and improving farmer livelihoods.”

While the farms Nahua works with are not organically certified, farmers are encouraged to use environmentally friendly methods of pest control, instead of remedies that require chemicals. As an example, Juan Pablo describes Nahua’s approach to dealing with cacao pod diseases. “To control Monilia or Moniliasis, a disease observed in cacao forests that attacks pods one at a time, we take a natural approach. Instead of applying fungicides — which is very common in Costa Rica and dangerous to both the producer and the environment — we ask farmers to identify infected pods, cut them down carefully — trying not to damage the surrounding cacao flowers — and burry the pods in the ground covered with leaves. Once the pod is in the ground, the fungus cannot spread its spores and the pod disintegrates adding nutrients to the soil. It is a very cost effective and environmentally sustainable approach, as opposed to the current practice of just leaving the pod to rot on the tree, increasing the risk that it will spread to neighboring trees.” Other recommended practices include the trimming and clearing of overgrown branches to maximize airflow and light which also help to control disease and fungus such as Monilia.

According to Juan Pablo, “All of these practices help bit by bit to improve productivity” which Nahua considers to be one of the most significant markers of success. To be precise, Juan Pablo defines success for Nahua’s Cacao Renovation Program as “increased yields per hectare and sustainable farm management.” From a broader regional perspective, the program’s goal is “to bring productivity levels to a place where farming families can live off of income earned from growing cacao. Right now there is no incentive to invest in cacao improvements because there is not enough return. If we can help producers become more profitable, then we can bolster their interest in cacao farming and revitalize the country’s premium cacao sector.”

Monitoring Impact and Cultivating Resilient Communities

Along with providing technical support, Nahua offers farmers a stable and reliable market for their cacao beans. The company strives to pay farmers above market prices and guarantees a stable price throughout the season. By purchasing all cacao fresh from producers, farmers avoid having to seek out unreliable markets and Nahua is able to closely monitor the post-harvest process, essential to producing premium quality beans. Juan Pablo adds, “it is safer for them to work with us. If farmers are confident they will earn a stable price throughout the season, they are more inclined to commit time, resources and energy towards improving their cacao production.”

Nahua’s activities with farmers draw from IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards), a catalog of generally-accepted performance metrics designed to measure the social, environmental and financial performance of a company. Nahua monitors, evaluates and reports on select metrics and indicators to measure progress towards goals and to report the impacts of Nahua activities on smallholder farmers and their communities.

The company currently works with over 200 growers with many being seniors over the age of 65 and 22% identified as “women family leaders.” Promoting gender equity and inclusivity is an important indicator. Nahua has identified that women who are heads of household make decisions on family expenses and often maintain employment while also managing their cacao plantation. Some women farmers have grown to become community leaders and run small nurseries or host cacao training activities at their farm. Juan Pablo adds, “Nahua supports these women leaders and provides them with the knowledge and training they need to continue supporting their own communities.”

Because the Cacao Renovation Program initiated in early January of 2016, quantitative results and improvements remain difficult to measure. The company forecasts that measurable results will likely not be available until year 2 or 3 of the program to determine whether the farmer participants are benefiting from increased yields. The qualitative results, however, are very apparent. Farmers now “feel as though they are not alone. If they have any issues with their plantations, they have a team of agronomists that have become their friends that they can talk to openly,” Juan Pablo elaborates. “Even if it’s not going that well or if they have difficulties, they can still sell cacao to Nahua. This simple relationship with a small company has made their plantation more productive and it gives them a sense of improvement, progress and a little peace of mind.”

In 2017 Nahua remains committed to developing deeper relationships on the other side of the supply chain. The company is interested in working with buyers who understand the issues related to cacao production and want to help cacao producers rather than marginalize them. In Juan Pablo’s words, “It’s not just buying and selling cacao — it’s learning and improving throughout the value chain.” In other words, it’s not just about the transaction — it’s about the relationship. Juan Pablo says Nahua would love to see volunteers get involved in the Cacao Renovation Program and welcomes those interested to visit and “participate in the program and help find new and better ways of making an impact.”

If you are interested in purchasing their Maleku beans, learning more, or perhaps even taking a trip to Costa Rica to witness Nahua’s efforts first hand, reach out to them through their Yellow Seed profile.

About the author: Justin Eldridge Otero, Nahua’s Impact Advisor, spends significant time in Upala, Costa Rica working alongside Nahua’s farmer network to strengthen the company’s cacao renovation program. His professional experience includes sustainable urban development in São Paulo, Brazil and environmental conservation in the Brazilian Amazon. Justin also has experience working with micro-finance institutions and small business in Mexico and Bolivia.

About the editor: Polly Golikova, Yellow Seed’s marketing intern, supported the crafting of this story based on a series of interviews conducted with Nahua representatives. She believes that telling stories is the most effective path towards transparency in the food system, especially when they emerge from as close to the origin of production as possible. Polly is a student of sustainable agriculture and food systems at UC Davis and is convinced that food is one of the most powerful vehicles for social and environmental justice.

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