The Bullied Bean: 5 Reasons Why We Chose to Import a CCN-51 Blend
Three years ago I never thought I would be pushing CCN-51. Truthfully, I even delayed writing this article for months because I was nervous about the social ramifications of calling attention to the fact. For example, I asked a Facebook group of specialty cacao and craft chocolate professionals, “Has anyone made good chocolate out of it?” The first response read, “As a matter of principle, we don’t allow CCN-51 into our factory.”
The cacao varietal CCN-51 is typically associated with mass market, undifferentiated industry chocolate. In the field, it is thought of as a “work horse” — sturdy, productive and disease-resistant. Industrial productivity is rewarded with a robust and secure ~$100B cacao commodity market that values a low-price, low-quality bulk commodity product.
So what’s the cost of cheap? The cocoa market, like many commodities, has its share of “dark secrets”; namely, low income paid to farmers, child slavery, environmental degradation and deforestation to name a few. And at the end of the day it is the farmer who bears the majority of the risk. The world’s 1.5 billion smallholder farmers have the highest incidence of poverty amongst all sectors of the global economy (Valuing the SDG Prize in Food and Agriculture). “Boom and bust” patterns of development eventually lead to lower relative standards of living, soil degradation and forest loss over time (Chocolate’s Dark Secret). Last year’s cocoa expansion plans backfired, as an oversupply generated lower prices than we’ve seen in a decade to $1869/MT. And the forecast for this year isn’t good either (Reuters). Farmers now need to produce more (that is, work more) to receive the same compensation.
“Fast rather than slow, more rather than less — this flashy “development” is linked directly to society’s impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature. Agriculture must change from large mechanical operations to small farms attached only to life itself.” — Masanobu Fukuoka
The Missing Middle
What pathways are available to farmers who wish to break free from this vicious cycle? Does a market exist for producers and sellers who are emerging and fall outside of existing certification schemes?
Working on the Yellow Seed project over the last few years, I’ve heard from many producers and sellers at origin. Each have unique and inspiring stories, but there is a common underlying theme. Producers share a desire for improved livelihood and to be connected to a market that rewards their skills and unique value addition — quality, agroforestry, or forest conservation, for example — value that often falls outside of the reward of a certification scheme. Many of these farmers are on their way to selling to the premium craft markets, yet fall somewhere in the middle in terms of quality or connectivity. We call this the missing middle.
We’re not just talking about a few farmers. Almost all co-ops we’ve spoken to in the last four years fall somewhere in this missing middle category. They are emblematic of the 80% of small-scale farmers not regularly connected to markets. These sellers often struggle to differentiate, communicate and validate their unique value offering as they work to decouple their products from the commodity market.
Are there buyers willing to pay fair prices to producers for the value of their skill and care while they are in transition away from a low-paying commodity product? Perhaps a better question is are those buyers able to communicate the added value to consumers?
“We know there are other fair markets that value cacao producers, but we don’t know how to access them. To us, it feels like many people don’t understand what effort and care cacao producers put into making the beans and we would love to tell our story. We want to find buyers that love our product and value what we are trying to do but don’t know how to find them.” — Cooperativa Agraria Cacaotera Choba Choba (Co-op ACCC) summarized in Challenges section on the Origin Profile.
Their story is representative of many cacao farmers who seek a better way of life. Supporting a transition away from low-paying commodity market requires partnership with buyers who can offer fair prices that reward their efforts, skill and unique value offering. It also calls for trust to be built all the way to the end consumer. The speciality and craft industry has pioneered movements such as “Direct Trade” and “Transparent Trade” with custom agreements, reporting and personal verification. However, if you walk into a bakery or restaurant with the same story, they may ask “where is the proof?” Without certifications, it’s often hard to sell a value-added product to markets beyond a direct trade relationship.
“The reality is that there are so many producers who are paid very little. Our vision of the future is that the producer is truly valued as the main bond in the supply chain.” Jhonatan Acosta, Co-op ACCC, (Video of Co-op ACCC)
At a Crossroads
We can not solve the climate crisis without the help of small scale farmers protecting our terrestrial ecosystems. “Plants and soils in terrestrial ecosystems currently absorb the equivalent of ∼20% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents” (Natural Climate Solutions). “Halting all deforestation and reversing forest degradation could mitigate up to 10% of total emissions globally by 2030” (Valuing the SDG Prize in Food and Agriculture).
We have the information, the science and the tools. The next step is one of human organization. The problem is one of values. Growing and consuming food is the number one way we interact with the planet. And what we eat is the embodiment of a set of relationships that one is buying into by purchasing and consuming that food. Stories help us articulate the values that are present in the supply chain. And we need more. We need to start seeing relationships as a form of technology.
Olivier De Schutter says it best in an UN Report Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, “To meet global supply demands and curb climate change, the solution is in utilizing the production capacity of the world’s small-scale farms.” Yet interventions that aim to upgrade small-scale farmers into high-value, formal supply chains tend to benefit only two to ten percent of farmers. Why? Modern supply chains are often built around a small number of large scale producers and capture value through economies of scale, relying on efficiency rather than mimicking the natural ecosystem of geographically dispersed and biologically diverse products with a range of quality, scale and variety. We agree that “[in] order to address the diverse needs and interests that shape human life, we need a shared approach to sustainability with local and cross-national collaboration.”
Sharing Risk and Building Trust: a Yellow Seed Pilot
When I shared my interest to purchase CCN-51 cacao beans to the Yellow Seed team for its import pilot, they were shocked and nervous. And rightly so. We designed a pilot to import 6MT of cacao beans from an emerging origin. By design, it was already a risky investment, financially and socially. Financially, we took out loans from several social impact investors, with just the promise of our brand. Introducing new origins to market is a sizeable investment to understand their story and build a brand and reputation in a new market. Plus, emerging origins often don’t have certifications that generally provide important assurance to the existing market. Choosing a CCN-51 blend also meant we would likely have to find alternative markets to the already saturated craft and speciality markets.
5 reasons We Chose to Purchase a CCN-51 Blend from Co-op ACCC
In sum, to add CCN-51 to an already risky profile without a real known market was, well… a leap of faith. They pressed, “Are you sure about this, Zam?”
Our risk is a drop in the bucket compared to the risk farmers face everyday. I wanted to more intimately understand the challenges these producers face in connecting to markets. After several months of research and listening, we welcomed Co-op ACCC to the Yellow Seed community. Here are 5 reasons why.
1. Fair Price
Producers we spoke to repeatedly highlighted a challenge that is often overlooked: economic justification for price paid for commodity vs speciality cacao. Logic would say, if CCN-51 was 3x more productive and generally requires less skill to produce, then producers of speciality cacao should get paid 3x as much. That is often not the case. And again, what happens to farmers that fall in the middle? How do you know what is a fair price?
At the Co-op ACCC, the sense of community resilience, desire for self-improvement and the interest in entrepreneurship is strong. Farmers set the product price, are actively engaged with developing their business skills, and want closer relationships with buyers.
In order to understand whether we paid a fair price for their beans,, they shared with us their goals, cost of goods sold, funding objectives and details of pricing factors. You can learn more about what goes into the price by clicking on the “Supply Chain & Pricing” tab on the Armonia Blend product page to see the Pricing Breakdown wheel.
With an understanding of what is fair according to producers, our aim is (1) to find buyers that share the same values and can meet them at that price or (2) to understand the challenges these producers face in finding a match.
2. High Impact
Co-op ACCC is any social impact fund’s dream project. The co-op lies in the Alto Huayabamba Valley, in the heart of the upper Amazon, the birthplace of cacao itself. Its rich ecosystem is part of UNESCO‘s Biosphere Reserve “Gran Pajatén” which covers more than 2.4 million hectares and is home to abundant animal life — a diversity of birds, mammals, fish — and very unique cacao varieties.
The project varietal was planted to replace coca as a strategy for peace and economic recovery. Jhonatan Acosta, the Project Coordinator at Co-op ACCC explains that “Along with coca farming came a lot of violence from narcotics traffic and terrorism. In the late 1990’s when the Peruvian government had an economic downturn, the producers ended up in extreme poverty.”
Now the aim is to continue to diversify by expanding native varietals, improving biodiversity and community resilience.
The farmers “co-exist with nature” and practice agroforestry simply because they want to conserve the incredible forest around them and produce their cacao in harmony with Nature.
Some of the 36 farmer families cultivate medicinal plants from the Amazon along with the cacao. Others produce forest plants and work on revegetating areas as they are strong advocates for conservation.
This co-op also works with Pur Projet which provides carbon land management and carbon insetting opportunities for buyers who wish to purchase VCS carbon credits that benefit farmers directly.
7% of the revenue of beans sold will go towards a farmer-directed impact goal of expanding their unique agroforestry system and strengthening conservation efforts. See the pilot page for details.
3. Equity and Sustainability
We could have chosen an origin with an even more striking story. We could have chosen a product we knew would woo the hearts of our existing social network — those sought-after beans with unique flavor and rare genetics.
Co-op ACCC sits firmly within the missing middle. They dared to step out in the unknown to seek partnership and fair reward for their effort. Their story is emblematic of many origins who are underrepresented in the industry. We also chose Co-op ACCC because of its entrepreneurial spirit and agency, representative of Yellow Seed’s values of Choice and Voice.
In deciding to work with Co-op ACCC, we could have chosen to buy a unique varietal such as the farmer-created hybrid CYP (see more info about CYP in this Medium Story) to avoid association with the CCN-51. However, by making an exclusive choice, only one farm estate would benefit from the sale. And this happened to be the co-op’s president’s estate. By choosing to blend with the project varietal, all 36 farmers’ families could benefit from added income, enabling them to plant more native and special varietals and improve the quality of each over time.
4. Busting Myths
CCN-51 is not one-size-fits-all. With care and intention, the bean can taste great and nourish communities and the environment. In this way, it is not a destination but a pathway toward diversification and resilience, providing stability while encouraging continuous improvement of quality and quality of life.
Co-op ACCC shatters myths of CCN-51 being environmentally extractive. The bean is organically grown without the use of pesticides and in an agroforestry environment. Agroecology often involves a trade-off between long-term sustainability and resilience and short-term productivity.
“If well-fermented and dried, CCN-51 can be made into a very fine chocolate bar,”was another response to my question in the Facebook group. We’ve found this to be true. Namely, the flavor of any product can stand on its own merits. Good genetics are important, but are not the only factor.
We asked friends, professionals and makers to share feedback on the quality of beans from Co-op ACCC. We were thrilled to hear that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “Extremely well-fermented.” “Great tasting bean.” In an email, a craft chocolate maker shared, “I’m really enjoying working with the cacao and am very happy with the chocolate I’m making from them. I’m hoping to order 3 or 4 more bags soon.”
Another maker who was originally doubtful of CCN-51 shared promising feedback. “I roasted your beans at 250F for 50-minutes in our convection oven at Edesia, and was able to bring forth some interesting flavors. I will say both beans were surprisingly flavorful with CCN-51 providing the brighter flavor components and CYP offering toastier, richer, nuttier flavors. I’d be willing to say this cacao has some potential, and I hope that it is indeed part of a transitional, restorative and regenerative cultivation model.”
I also tried sharing with friends, some of whom said it was the best chocolate they’ve had. The bags of chocolate I brought to parties disappeared in moments. Hooray!
This feedback was not only reassuring but promising! Myths be gone!
5. Partnership and Collaboration as a Pathway
Ultimately the goal of this pilot is not just to sell CCN-51. It’s not about one-time transactions. It’s an opportunity for buyers and their consumers to build a relationship with farmers who are actively creating a better way of life and building a better future for all of us.
We believe small-scale farmers should be meaningfully engaged as partners in the management of our food supply systems and the environmental services that underpin them.
Purchasing beans from Co-op ACCC supports investment in diversification, development, and improvement of other varietals including native ones. It means continued investment in forest conservation and ecosystem health to reduce risks of climate change and degradation. It means investing in a community that rewards women leadership and inspires a younger generation of cacao farmers to participate. It is an invitation into partnership.
“True systems change will come from collaboration and compassion, not competition.
Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” –Helen Keller.
Collaborative Cacao — Flash Sale
We launched the collaborative campaign to spread awareness of Co-op ACCC and the challenges and opportunities for connecting with emerging origins. If small matters, then let us harness the power of the crowd. For 3 weeks we will aggregate orders of smaller players to reduce costs of shipping and access discounts to enable participation.
Our goal is to sell 85 bags of beans (or nibs, paste, chocolate.) Every bag has a story. We want to tell yours.
For makers, this campaign brings awareness to efforts that go into sourcing with your values and to determine which methods of collaborating and sourcing are most valuable to you.
For educators and consumers, it’s an invitation to be part of this story, invest in your community and seed the change.
For more details on how to participate or access discounts see www.yellow-seed.org/flashsale
At the end of this campaign, we’ll share a lesson learned report on this pilot including challenges faced and opportunities ahead.
About the Author
Nancy is passionate about designing systems for collaboration and practical ways we can work together for mutual benefit of people and planet. She is a co-founder of two non-profit impact driven enterprises; Yellow Seed facilitates connection between farmers at origin and emerging markets, and Wild Forests and Fauna (WFF) supports local leadership in conservation of wild forest frontiers. In her 20’s, she was a film editor and motion graphics designer and is finding she still enjoys weaving stories. If you have any feedback or ways to improve these articles, feel free to share directly to nancy (at) yellow-seed.org