‘Great Things Are Coming’: Colombian Cocoa Farmers’ Rugged Winding Road To Upend The Unequal Food System And Their Hope For Prosperity

Food & Drink

There isn’t a lot for scenery-obsessed backpackers to discover in Necoclí, a coastal Colombian settlement sitting humbly near the tip of Antioquia Department: here, violence and narcos-related crimes are still rampant, poverty runs deep across its population of 20,000, and the humidity level constantly at 100% throughout the year.

Things have gotten increasingly out of control since 2021 when local COVID restrictions were lifted, rendering this sleepy beach town a convenient transitory station for Haitian, Venezuelan, and Cuban refugees before they wind their way further north for a safer haven — only scattered papas rellenas stands, seafood eateries, and country shops selling random collections of plastic sandals and kitchenware with rows of pineapples on display up front manifest its budding livelihood.

To local residents, a notable portion of which are the pre-Colombian Zenú indigenous group who’s still proudly practicing their generations-old artisans such as handmade sombrero vueltiao using native caña flecha fiber and a fermented corn drink Chicha de Maíz, Necoclí’s seemingly chaotic and run-down characteristics perceived by foreign travelers like myself are actually a sign of hope.

If you may ask how, many attribute the increase of commerce to chocolate — surprisingly a luxury for most Colombians only a few decades ago given the cocoa plant is native to the country.

Granja Luker.

In a certain sense, chocolate is still expensive, I was reminded while first visiting Luker Chocolate, a household corporate namesake that accounts for a whopping 70% share of the Colombian chocolate market together with its domestic competitor Compañía Nacional de Chocolates, despite that hot chocolate mixed with raw cane sugar using a molinillo whisk in a traditional chocolatera pot, then finished with soft white cheese on top, has become a morning-routine staple for the locals.

“Low-income people here can barely afford two pieces of chocolate out of a bar that’s worth around $2 to feed a family of four every day,” said Mauricio Velásquez, the company’s head of agricultural research, after our crew completed a tour at Luker Chocolate’s R&D center Granja Luker, located at an hour’s drive north of Pereira, Risaralda, best known for its aromatic Arabica coffee beans. For that reason, Velásquez said Luker Chocolate is working tirelessly to improve cocoa productivity and quality across its farms, while educating owners of adjacent smaller family farms on best agricultural practices and figuring out additional income sources for them.

Improving cocoa yield is an ambitious task. For a long time, West African nations — Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire — have been supplying more than 75% of cocoa worldwide, World Cocoa Foundation estimates, but increasingly, premium chocolate brands like Alter Eco are sourcing ingredients instead from South America, where there are far fewer child labor cases, cocoa species are more genetically diverse, and the average quality of the beans is superior. Such shift also makes it easy for these companies to pivot towards conscious consumerism.

In an ideal scenario, each cocoa tree can yield 25-30 pods out of 3,000 flowers per year after careful proning, which only allows them to grow up to 2.5-meter tall (approximately 8.2 feet) to prevent from potential diseases caused by extra moist, nursery, root stock (typically using forastero, one of the strongest cocoa varieties), and grafting that enables the cultivation of higher quality and more diverse cocoa species — burgundy colored San Vincente 41 with wrinkled peels, Saraveña B, a chartreuse pod enclosing tad sweet flavored beans, to name a few.

Most cocoa trees appear as if they were planted by accident, since many are grown alongside a variety of other crops, plantain for example, which is so prevalent across Colombia that lines up almost all country roads we passed during this trip, in addition to green beans, tomatoes, and occasionally vanilla, with reach providing a unique income source for farmers.

But the agricultural supply chain in Colombia is just as vulnerable as the rest of the world when facing climate change: local farmers warn cocoa plants, which best thrive at 1,200-1,600 meters (3,937-5249 feet) terrestrial altitude, are forced to grow at a higher level every year, where they are exposed to precipitation more easily, thus becoming more likely to be infected with diseases. Biweekly assessment of the crop is necessary, I was told.

Sylvia.

We briefly stopped by Medellín, the capital of Antioquia Department and the second-largest city in Colombia, before flying north to Apartadó to unlock my romantic quest for cocoa-induced wealth. It was mostly a smooth ride along the 62 highway, where the traditional vallenato music playing in our rugged Ford was muffled by the honks from the oncoming traffic and shuttling motorcycles from time to time, until we reached near the farm. The road, worsened by recent rains, became so bumpy and unscrupulous that we all had to get off the car and walked. My travel companion Heather Terry, founder and CEO of GoodSAM Foods, joked about how this was as authentic of a trip to the country as it could be.

Poking through the luscious green of plantain and cocoa trees in scorching heat, there stood Sylvia, a nature-loving, capable-looking figure donned in a casual checkered shirt, whose explanatory and chatty gestures let slip her managerial status.

Sylvia became one of the very few women farm owners nine years ago in Colombia, where entrenched hierarchy long plagues the society, after divorcing her ex-husband for insisting on turning their family field into organic, only to realize she was indebted with $3,000, an astronomical amount equivalent to local farmers’ average annual salary. “I just don’t want people to get sick with bad food,” she told me about her faith in organic farming.

Owning a farm is entrepreneurial at its essence, Sylvia believes, stressing how working with Luker Chocolate, GoodSAM Foods, and local nonprofits such as House of Women has taught her basic financial tools and empowered many women in the area to combat forced leave by militias, kidnapping, sexual violence, and other atrocities. “This is a difficult region,” she continued. “But, if I have worked here for 20 years, I can eventually pay off the loan too.”

At this small three-hectare farm (approximately 7.4 acres), of which six acres are designated for cocoa, regenerative agriculture is in full play, Sylvia explained, while scooping up soil with her both hands 16 inches away from a cocoa tree, where fallen leaves from gmelina arborea, calophyllum antillanum, and other native trees are buried and turned into nourishing organisms.

While this soil conservation practice aiming to reverse damage caused by climate change has seen a recent uptick in both government support and funding from big corporates like PepsiCo and Hormel Foods across North America, it’s nowhere near as a novelty to Colombian farmers.

“The indigenous tribes and small holder farmers that GoodSAM works with have been preserving this way of farming for hundreds if not thousands of years,” Terry later told me. “Regenerative agriculture keeps farming with minimal to no chemical inputs, preserves soil health for the protection of land that is often ancestral or has been passed from generation to generation, and is now being shown to have better crop outputs. When a company like GoodSAM comes in and buys all the commercially viable crops, this also provides a year-round stream of income. It is a truly circular model.”

Cutting out middlemen within the supply chain also allows GoodSAM Foods to purchase directly from small farmers like Sylvia, helping them tremendously grow their income that could otherwise be spared with brokers. This method, which is part of what Terry schooled me in as “conscious capitalism,” is completely implementable as long as trust with these individual farmers and their associations remains in place, and she encourages more food and beverage makers to invest in such business model so as to maximize benefits for the farmer.

“We are strengthening this system that puts farmers and their livelihood first,” Terry added. “Without more companies investing in this type of structure, we will continue to see the median age of farmers increase, and we will continue to lose farmers to what is perceived as better opportunities in the cities.

“This is a dire situation, and one that most Americans take for granted.”

The fight for a healthier and more equal food system must go on, at least for Sylvia. Standing in the shadow of her semi-mature agroforestry environment, “great things are coming” — the one last thing she told me, with her eyes beaming, before we snapped a few extra cheerful action shots and gave each other a long hold hug.

Walter.

Our crew trekked onward with our sweat-soaked shirts and mud-covered hiking boots after I chucked down a can of Speed Max, a locally made energy drink, to refuel.

The scene ahead was nothing short of cringe-inducing: uneven mountain walls unkemptly laying on both sides as we were jolting through the middle; signs of recent landslides were evidenced by snapped tree trunks casually dangling just a few feet above us. After all, the region has experienced some heavy rainfall that caused the overflow of Apartadó River, damaging thousands of people’s homes, just two months before our visit.

“Look on your right side,” Terry yelled at me in the car: a terrifying 100-meter-high unfenced cliff appeared right in front of us, followed by her teasing laughs. “Here’s your full Colombian experience!” Once again, we had to be evacuated so the vehicle was light enough to drive around, and walked.

Here lives Walter, another farmer working with Luker who’s adamant about organic farming and firmly against slash-and-burn. We met him half way to the farm after trudging across a steep flight of limestone, which was hand paved by Walter himself for motorcycles to transport produce. Farmers typically walk on the muddy side of the road, so we took the easier route.

“Three years ago, it wasn’t this humid,” Walter told me about how his field has been invariably affected by climate change, while it began drizzling, taming the unbearable heat we experienced earlier. Now he and his son need to manually cut out unhealthy cocoa pods and harvest new ones almost every week to ensure decent productivity on this 7.5-hectare farm, about 18.5 acres.

Walter hopes to receive more government support on infrastructure so that his increasingly diversified crops can become more accessible to distributors and food companies. Asked what he anticipates the most out of his current life, Walter said: “I just want my road to be fixed so people can come visit,” after taking a nostalgic look around at the farm he’s lived on for 50-plus years.

Our journey was unfortunately cut short due to the tight schedule, nor did I have enough energy to drag my swollen body festooned with bug bites all way to the top. “Next time when you guys are back,” Walter said before we departed downhill, “I’ll kill a chicken for you,” waving us goodbye with a smile cracked out of his weathered face.

Nelcy, Eve, Anna Maria, Issac, Damian …

Like most inquisitive international visitors, I was eager to find out how Colombia’s recent presidential election that resulted in Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla movement, becoming the country’s first leftist president, impacts everyday life.

It was a real struggle in reality as it turned out Colombia still remains deeply divided, and political conversations are only for the whisperer. For one thing, Petro’s victory underlines a drastic change in the long-held perception that the marginalized left is associated with the armed conflict; for another thing, it shows the Colombian public has been desperate for a solution for the rising inequality, inflation, and more recently, pandemic-induced poverty. For many, Petro is the type of leader who’s taken half in doubt but worth giving it a shot.

In the end, “politics and cocaine” were the two things forbidden from discussion, I was alarmed prior to this trip, so I kept my mouth shut on our way to Caribia, a residential area nestled comfortably by Río Mulatos, a roughly 20-minute drive northeast of downtown Necoclí.

Here, small businesses are thriving: from former farmer-turned entrepreneurs including the 45-year-old Nelcy, who has transformed a local school space into her own handcraft workshop in merely seven months, sewing items like bracelets, hats, and then selling them to tourists and nearby towns, to students who are adopting essential social media and networking skills in the hope of launching their own companies.

For me, the answers to how cocoa farming empowers a whole community finally seemed to unfold. Luker Chocolate, GoodSAM Foods, and their business partners, including their Bogotá-based creative agency JellyShot, have set up a robust learning program “Building Networks,” sending their staff here on rotation to share expertise with the locals to help them better prepare for their future:

There was 19-year-old Eve, who was initially introduced to the program through Luker’s former sustainability director, and is currently enrolled in a weekly English class; 16-year-old Anna Maria, the daughter of Nelcy who’s studying to become a food engineer; Issac, who’s part of a four-hour weekly IT program and aspires to obtain an environmental engineering degree to continue helping with his family farm; and there was 34-year-old Damien, who’s already learning a set of technical and HR skills from Luker’s Chocolate Dream initiative, and hoping to leverage the new-found power of social media to accelerate his current venture — bringing more tourists to Necoclí — which has just won endorsements from five local business leaders in a recent pitch contest.

“I’ve never told the story until now, and I’m very proud of what I achieved,” Damien told our crew with eyes sparkling with exuberance. “These business partners are worth dreaming of.”

These individuals are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger social mission that GoodSAM Foods and their affiliates have spent a fair deal of time investing in, partly because there’s a growing number of young people looking to build entrepreneurial endeavors that will likely become the backbone for the local economy; additionally, “these types of programs bring a lot of ideas and momentum to communities who are growing and changing, and Building Networks was no exception,” Terry said, emphasizing how they’re also shaking up the traditional way consumer brands are doing their businesses.

In GoodSAM’s case, “be an ally for small farms” is imprinted in a much larger font than its brand name on all packaging across its portfolio from baking mix to chocolate, further highlighting the company’s direct-trade nature. On the back, “product of Colombia” boldly stamped near the bottom shows the brand’s zero interest in appealing to made-in-USA zealous shoppers. “Chocolates don’t come from the U.S.,” Terry said, “we have it all here in Colombia.”

“My long-term aspirations for the brand are to fundamentally upend the food system as we know it,” she continued. “We are looking to change a system and create a new way for food companies to think about doing business that isn’t just focused on this dinosaur notion that everything comes at the expense of the top line.”

It was about dinner time. A soothing ray of amber sunset laying quietly through Caribia’s dusty streets was eclipsed here and there by the shadows of Zenú residents’ cottages, plantain trees, swinging palms, and local farmers walking leisurely.

In an eerie sense of déjà vu, it appeared to me, a veteran food journalist who’s a tad fatigued by the industry’s numerous transparency promises and sustainability goals, as if they were nameless figures coming out of another ESG report.

Except, they’re all real.

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