AgroArriba San Gregorio
Speaking with Taza Chocolate’s Director of Cocoa Sourcing Jesse Last, AgroArriba’s Patricio Bonilla reflects on the challenge of defining cacao quality, his work building trust with remote farmers, and the satisfaction he derives from developing sustainable supply chain relationships.
The Nitty Gritty
Most Recent Visit by Taza: June, 2017
Number of Farmers: 49
Number of Female Farmers: 16
Numbers of Hectares Certified Organic: 156
Fermentation Model: Heaps with banana leaves for insulation
Average Fermentation Rate: 75%
Drying Model: Concrete patio
Total Cacao Exported: 75.6 MT
Annual volume purchased by Taza: 75.6 metric tons
Average price paid by Taza*: $2,876 per metric ton
After more than a decade working with farmers throughout South America, Patricio Espinoza Bonilla returned home to Ecuador in 2016 to join cacao processor and exporter AgroArriba. As the manager of the company’s sustainability program, Patricio oversees a 15-member team that researches agricultural practices and shares its findings with smallholder cacao producers across Ecuador, including with Taza’s newest partner, the San Gregorio farmer association. In an understated and gracious manner, Patricio shares his experiences and lessons learned.
JL: How do you think about cacao quality, Patricio?
PE: Based on my experience, I feel 50% of quality is based on the origin and 50% is based on the chocolate maker. At origin, the cacao genetics, the environment and the processing - fermentation and drying - are the major factors. Once the beans are with the chocolate maker, he or she controls the other 50%.
JL: So in your view, cacao quality is a joint effort -
PE: Yes, but you can have good cacao genetics, terroir and processing, and if the buyer does not like the beans, nothing else matters. The final decision about quality is in the hands of the chocolate maker.
JL: Can you explain that further? Don’t chocolate makers agree on what constitutes “quality” cacao?
PE: Not necessarily. Some chocolate makers care about the size or the color of the cacao bean or the fermentation practices used. Others care about the flavor. It depends on the market.
JL: But how can you make a cacao buyer like me happy if the definition of quality is subjective?
PE: I have to understand your definition first. Then I can work with a group of farmers to achieve the quality that you need.
JL: This is the process we went through together when we talked about the cacao bean characteristics Taza wanted, and you introduced me to the San Gregorio farmer association, yes?
JL: When did you begin working with the farmers from San Gregorio?
PE: Three years ago. As you know, they are located in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas (Emerald) Province known as the Green Province because there is so much forest. It borders Colombia to the north and is the door to the Amazon rainforest.
JL: Were the farmers already certified Organic when you met them?
PE: The farmers were already practicing Organic agriculture because they are located in the buffer zone of the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve, but they didn’t have the certification required to sell the cacao as such.
JL: Was it easy to build a relationship with the San Gregorio farmer association?
PE: The community is very remote, so the association is slow to trust those from outside their region whom they call ‘foreigners.’ It has taken time to build trust with the farmers. You have to be very transparent. Earning the trust of the farmers and managing logistics are the hard parts of working with San Gregorio.
JL: How are the logistics hard?
PE: During last year’s earthquake, the association’s fermentation and drying center was damaged. The community is still waiting for the government to help rebuild it. For the time being, AgroArriba performs fermentation and drying at our own facility. But this is 5-6 hours from San Gregorio.
JL: Why is this a challenge?
PE: Transporting wet and heavy beans is not ideal from an efficiency perspective, but in our opinion, it is the best approach because in San Gregorio it rains a lot and so individual producers trying to do fermentation and drying on their farms would be very difficult. So, we prefer to do the processing ourselves to ensure quality.
JL: Besides helping San Gregorio rebuild its processing facility, how do you plan to support the farmers in the future?
PE: We want to invest in organic composting and soil health, disease control, and cacao tree pruning to increase yields.
JL: What do you find most rewarding about these efforts?
PE: Going out to the fields and seeing farmers who have adopted our recommendations, who trust us and want to improve. Also, connecting a group of farmers and a chocolate maker so that together they can develop a high quality cacao at a good price. I think this is the best part, when I can link these parties and make benefits for both the chocolate maker and the farmer.
*Price Paid by Taza is on FOB terms and equal to the negotiated fixed price or to the negotiated premium plus the world market price on the day the contract is closed.