From decadent cookies to hot chocolate to the perfect mocha, there are lots of reasons to love our rich and flavorful organic cocoa. But what’s the best thing about our cocoa? It’s the story–about farmer ownership, empowerment and an evolving supply chain.
It starts in the Dominican Republic, where cacao trees grow abundantly in the tropical climate and cocoa is huge industry. Historically, this industry has been dominated by 4 dominant exporters, and farmers have had little involvement beyond growing, harvesting and selling to intermediaries.
That’s where CONACADO (The National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers) has been blazing a trail since 1985. It began as a development project during a low in the global cocoa market, to study how cacao fermentation techniques could improve the quality of cacao production. Before then, 100% of Dominican cacao production was low-quality unfermented beans, which could be sold cheaply to the United States. But after successfully proving that higher quality, fermented cacao could increase income to small farmers, CONACADO expanded its work to educate farmers on these techniques and organize them into regional associations, or bloques. Then, the co-operative entered a commercialization phase of the project and began seeking out niche markets for their unique, high quality cacao.
Today, CONACADO is made up of over 8,500 farmer members, and 70% of their cacao is sold as high quality fermented beans in niche markets, with 40% of it sold on the Fair Trade market. Fair Trade premiums are distributed to the 8 bloques for use in community projects to improve education, infrastructure, health and development – and every project is determined, planned and executed through a democratic process.
In 2008, CONACADO made another bold move and purchased their own cocoa powder processing plant, taking a major part of production into their own hands. Now, rather than selling their beans to be processed by chocolate companies, the farmers are in control of producing their own semi-finished products.
“It is rare in the chocolate world for farmers to own any part of the chocolate processing, so the fact that CONACADO owns the plant is a game changer,” said Dary Goodrich, Equal Exchange Chocolate Products Manager. “In the conventional system, farmers are on their own selling to intermediaries who sell to huge multinational corporations, and a small handful of these corporations process the vast majority of the world’s cocoa beans into chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder. CONACADO is flying in the face of all this.”
So how is the cocoa powder actually made?
First, the fermented and dried cocoa beans arrive by truck at the plant and are carefully sorted, roasted and ground into chocolate liquor. This liquor is run through a hydraulic cocoa press that separates the solids from the fats. The fats are called cocoa butter, an essential ingredient in chocolate, though in this stage it’s mostly flavorless. During separation, the dry solids are pressed into a densely packed block which gets pulverized into cocoa powder. All the while, the staff performs quality checks and tests and ensures that each step of the process runs smoothly.
Dary recalls, “It’s a noisy process, but it’s always fun to move through the plant and watch the beans from CONACADO farmers get processed into an Equal Exchange product.” In 2014 alone, Equal Exchange purchased over 200,000 lbs. of cocoa directly from the plant for our baking cocoa, hot cocoa and spicy hot cocoa mixes.
The process, and the ownership of the plant, is not without its challenges – but with that comes a lot of learning and a lot of pride. It hasn’t been easy for CONACADO to fill the capacity of the plant and find markets for their cocoa powder and cocoa butter, but this significant ownership is a big step for the co-operative and a major development in the Dominican cocoa industry.
So the next time you add a spoonful of cocoa to your mug, we hope that you love it even more!
Shop our organic cocoas: baking cocoa, hot cocoa mix and spicy hot cocoa mix.