Over the past 18 months, one of my greatest joys has been learning about something that I knew nothing about before. Frankly, I never thought that I would be in the chocolate industry. Coming from a background based in the fast-paced speciality coffee world, I never considered a jump into chocolate. Luckily, they are both beans and knowing about one only enhances knowledge of the other.
An unexpected opportunity brought me to the exquisite and generous country of Belize in the winter of 2013 where I worked for a cacao exporter. My experience threw me into an environment that pushed my comfort zones on all levels, but also allowed me to learn about cacao at its source and the complex process it goes through before it reaches the eager hands of chocolate makers.
While living in southern Belize, in a quiet jungle nook beside the Moho River, home was a small open-air thatched building perched above fermentation boxes. I lived in the main processing facility where freshly cracked cacao seeds were aggregated from a group of 200 organic farmers and processed for export.
Fortunately, in its solitary location in the jungle, the facility was kitty-corner to a rustic eco-lodge which had a trickling stream of adventure tourists from around the world. The remote location was off the beaten path and our processing facility was always an unexpected and curious site for travelers.
On a daily basis, aside from my duties at the processing facility, one of the most gratifying aspects of my work was talking to people about chocolate and providing information about the mysterious cacao fruit that it was made from. I was constantly confronted with questions about the processing that cacao seeds go through before they are Willy Wonka-ed into chocolate bars and sweets.
I loved and welcomed the questions because not only was I taking part in the education around cacao and bringing to light the hard work of the farmers that grow it, but it also helped me understand the importance of knowledge throughout the supply chain.
I quickly realized that many people have never thought about cacao fruit as being the original form of chocolate. They don’t know that it is grown on millions of farms around the world and that the majority of these farms are small family-run operations with limited access to organized markets. People in general are unaware that it is a beautiful oblong shaped and brightly colored fruit which grows from the trunks of squat looking trees.
Chocolate is one of those things, like coffee or tea, that a large percentage of the world consumes but doesn’t know how or where it grows, who grows it and the process that takes place in order for it to be consumed. Chocolate, historically, has given instant gratification to many in our sweet crazed cultures. Mainstream chocolate (Mars/Hershey’s/Cadbury) is usually so diluted by the time it’s consumed that any trace of authenticity or terroir of the bean is hard to detect.
This gap in knowledge, not knowing where or who chocolate comes from, is the inspirational fuel for the Yellow Seed Project. There is a real need to make the two-way street of the chocolate supply chain visible, accessible, and transparent for farmers, buyers and consumers.
What visibility and accessibility means from a farmers perspective is a connection to markets, resources, and taking part in the quality and assessment of their product. Allowing farmers to have a voice and know their customers quality needs, gives them an opportunity to make changes and to become owners of sustainable businesses with opportunities for growth.
On the flip side of that is empowering buyers to say what they need and allowing them access to the process. Making this process transparent at all points of supply chain improves their final product and informs their customers. Making genuine connections with the people who are growing the product and having access to farming communities contributes to the overall education around cacao and process.
In order to understand what the cacao industry’s current needs are, it helps to reflect on the the past 40 years in the world of coffee. The world of speciality coffee has been working hard at making coffee and it’s producers more visible and accessible. The SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America) was established in 1982 and for the past 34 years they have been diligently creating standards for quality and classifications of coffee. They have been a central platform for discussing important issues around the trade and economy of coffee.
Before the SCAA and all that has followed in its wake, there was no context in which to talk about quality and standardization of coffee and it process from origin to roaster to consumer. With this language now in place there is room for improvement of quality and relationships on all levels. It also allows innovative trade and sustainable business practices.
One of the goals that our Yellow Seed team has taken on is that of being a channel to connect people who are part of chocolate supply chains and to help facilitate a more efficient and collaborative system. Our task is to provide information and infrastructure and then make it accessible and transparent for all parties involved.
The chocolate industry is hot on the heels of the coffee world and has started to collaborate and create platforms where standardization, quality, and innovation can be discussed. Organizations like Direct Cacao are giving a voice to chocolate makers and cacao growers and providing opportunities to get involved. The increase of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the past 10 years has also contributed to making the process and growers more visible and celebrated. However, there is so much more work to be done!
Belize was my introduction to cacao but there is so much more to learn. What I do know now is that to build a sustainable and strong business for farmers and buyers we must create a strong foundation. That foundation is conversation, exchange of ideas and dialogue.