With the occasional question from our Director of Cocoa Sourcing Jesse Last, Gualberto Acebey reflects on his youthful ideals, discovering cacao growing in Germany, and how together with ÖKO Caribe Co-Founder Adriano Rodriguez, the business partners have contributed to the transformation of the cacao industry in the Dominican Republic.
The Nitty Gritty
Most Recent Visit by Taza: April, 2017
Country: Dominican Republic
Number of Farmers: 181
Number of Female Farmers: 25
Numbers of Hectares Certified Organic: 1299
Fermentation Model: Tiered wooden boxes
Average Fermentation Rate: 92%
Drying Model: Solar tunnels
Total Cacao Exported: 480 MT
Annual volume purchased by Taza: 151.2 metric tons
Average price paid by Taza*: $3,275 per metric ton
Over the last 20 years, Gualberto Acebey has dedicated himself to researching, developing and investing in cacao. His curiosity and commitment to quality position Gualberto at the industry’s frontier, where he and his co-founder Adriano Rodriguez lead ÖKO Caribe, a globally renowned processor and exporter of award-winning cacao. Despite his deep expertise and growing list of achievements, Gualberto carries himself with a wonderful sense of humor and humility.
JL: How did you get your start in the cacao world? Are you from a cacao growing family?
GA: Not at all! I’m from the Sierra - the Andes of Bolivia. My town is in the department of Potosi, in a small valley that’s 11,000 feet above sea level. We can hardly manage to grow a couple of fruit trees and varieties of corn, and even then, only during the summer months when there is rain! Cacao was not part of my world growing up.
JL: So when did cacao enter into the picture?
GA: When I was 18, I left Bolivia to get my University degree in Germany. I went with the vision of eventually returning to Bolivia to help my country. You know, the ideals of youth! In Germany, I discovered academic programs that focused on international agriculture including tropical crops like cacao, coffee, peppers, and so on.
JL: Cacao doesn’t grow in northern Europe...
GA: Of course, but the University had invested in greenhouses that simulated Amazonian growing conditions with the same humidity and species and so on so that we could do research. In this way, I ended up discovering cacao in Germany of all places!
JL: And did you return to Bolivia to fulfill your youthful ideals?
GA: Absolutely! Once I finished my studies, I connected with the German government agency that supported projects in developing economies, including Bolivia. At the time, there was an ongoing agricultural project with a farmer cooperative in Bolivia known as El Ceibo. El Ceibo was the first organic cacao cooperative in the world, and the German government had been supporting the cooperative for years. Given that I was Bolivian, it seemed to everyone like a good fit.
JL: But El Ceibo is in a very different part of Bolivia than where you grew up, right?
GA: It’s a funny story. Before accepting the position, I went to visit the Amazonian region of Alto Beni where El Ceibo is located. Being from the high Andes, it was my first time in the tropics (the German greenhouses don’t count.) As soon as the heat hit me, I began to sweat and all that. It was startling, and I said to myself, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea…” But I ended up taking the job, and I adapted. Now, I cannot imagine living in a cold climate!
JL: And what kind of work did you do with El Ceibo?
GA: I supported the diversified production of cacao. As you know, cacao is a tree that naturally grows in an agroforestry system alongside other tree species. Over the years, I have traveled into the Amazon and seen immense cacao trees growing wild among other species, and in this diverse system, they have no diseases at all! So the idea was for me to support smallholder farmers in growing tree species in addition to cacao that would benefit the ecosystem and help increase income, for example fruit trees or trees that could eventually be harvested for timber.
JL: How long were you there?
GA: 6 years. Then, I was offered another contract by the German development agency doing similar work in the Dominican Republic, this time with the group of cacao cooperatives known as CONACADO. Whereas El Ceibo had been the first cooperative to produce organic cacao, CONACADO had become the world’s largest. At the time, the farmer confederation had over 8,000 smallholder member farmers. Based on my education and experience, I was sent to help develop internal control systems for organic cacao production, as well as to assure cacao quality.
JL: When you arrived in the Dominican Republic, what was the cacao industry like?
GA: Around 2000, Dominican cacao was considered poorer quality. There was very little fermentation happening, and beans with all sorts of different quality would be mixed together and sold at a discount on the world market.
JL: That sounds like your personal nightmare. What did you do?
GA: My experience at El Ceibo helped me a great deal. Originally in the Dominican Republic, each farmer fermented and dried cacao in his or her own way, and when we mixed the different beans later, it created inconsistencies. So at CONACADO, we began collecting the cacao beans in “wet” and unfermented form to bring it to a centralized processing facility. It was a like a revolution in the country, and all the exporters had to invest in central processing and drying in order to compete with CONACADO.
JL: It was during this period that you began many of your cacao quality research and development studies, right?
GA: Well, Adriano and I began these studies together. Adriano was my local partner who worked at CONACADO, because as the German-sponsored expert, I needed a counterpart with whom I could collaborate. And fortunately, this person was Adriano, my eventual co-founder of ÖKO Caribe.
JL: So what kind of studies did you guys design?
GA: Adriano and I began to do a series of fermentation and drying experiments supported by CIRAD [an international agriculture research institute in France.] We looked at changes in temperature over time and under different fermentation systems ranging from sacks to heaps to wooden boxes. When well constructed, wooden boxes worked best. And we did a whole set of tests related to drying the cacao as well. We adapted the coffee industry’s solar tunnel model to cacao, and we used perforated metal or plastic racks that allowed air to flow all around the beans. Because drying is not only heat but air circulation, you know?
JL: This sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of innovation for the cacao industry -
GA: Adriano and I conducted these experiments for more than two years, almost three years in fact, until we finally achieved the quality we wanted. It was 2006, and we had spent seven years working for CONACADO. At this point, we saw the opportunity to become a processor of the highest quality cacao from the Dominican Republic. Our vision was quality not quantity.
JL: So you launched ÖKO Caribe with Adriano?
GA: Exactly! Because Adriano and I, we complemented each other. He was from the country and the region, and I brought my experiences from Bolivia. And we had spent years conducting these quality experiments together. But when we began, we didn’t have many resources. It was hard to access credit. We began small, and we did what we needed to do to grow. For example, I continued to work for the German development agency on the side to earn money.
JL: Is financing still the greatest challenge for ÖKO?
GA: In a way. The hardest part is the competition with the large exporters here in the Dominican Republic who have far more resources. We can only compete if our partners value the work we do and the consistent quality we deliver. What we lack in scale, we make up for in quality.
JL: As Taza, we have always appreciated your and Adriano’s commitment to quality above all else -
GA: Yes, Taza is a very important partner for us. We’re proud of what we’ve built. We’re proud to have been recognized internationally, on a global level, for the quality of our cacao. If you go on the internet and look up ÖKO Caribe, there’s lots of information about us and about the chocolates that are made with our cacao, including Taza’s!
*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.