Big dreams for Cacao Farmers in Davao

Chocolate is one of the world’s most exciting foods. From Central America—where the earliest settlers called the drink “bitter water” and revered cacao as a gift from the gods—chocolate as a drink and food additive has gained popularity as well as exotic appeal over the centuries and across the globe.

Today, one of the world’s finest chocolate bars traces its cacao to a small barangay in the Philippines. The Askinosie Davao White Chocolate Nibble Bar, which gets much praise in the world market, is handcrafted by a company from Missouri in the USA. Askinosie sources its beans from the Subasta Cooperative in Davao City. The cooperative, with more than 100 farmer-members today, is one of Davao’s more successful farmer groups growing, processing, and marketing cacao products. The Subasta cooperative supplies cacao to local specialty processors and also exports to international buyers, including Askinosie. It has also started to sell planting materials and fertilizers to other farmers in local communities.

The cooperative was started in March 2009 by 27 cacao producers in Davao. These farmers had attended activities of the Farmer Field School sponsored by the Success Alliance, an organization working towards improving the lives of cacao farmers and is supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The farmers established the cooperative when they realized the need to work together, share knowledge and resources, and build their own support systems.

But first they had to go through rigorous training. The Department of Agriculture and the Land Bank of the Philippines were there to help. “We had to undergo training at the Mars Cacao Development Center in Malagos,” says Ernesto Coquilla, chairman of the cooperative’s Board of Directors. The Mars Cacao Development Center, a project of the international chocolate company Mars, Inc., offers free training on the growing, rehabilitation, and post-harvest handling of cacao trees.

During the training sessions, the farmers learned new agricultural practices. For example, they learned it was important to choose only the best seed varieties in order to achieve the best possible type of yield, Coquilla says. They were oriented on the merits of using organic fertilizers, which encouraged them to gradually eliminate chemicals from their operations.

When representatives of Askinosie Chocolates came to visit in 2013, they were so impressed with the cooperative’s commitment toward good agricultural practices, the firm’s representatives gave cash incentives to encourage the farmers to pursue this commitment.  The training sessions also taught the farmers more about the technology of cacao production and bean processing. “That was where we acquired the technology to make top quality fermented cacao acceptable in the world market,” Coquilla adds.

At first, the cooperative sold only wet cocoa beans to the Puentespina Farms. Later they decided to dry and ferment their own beans. As their operations grew, they bought their own facilities to improve efficiency and production capacity. The cooperative’s domestic sales have continued to rise. Coquilla reports a growing number of buyers from Manila, Leyte, Cebu, and Bohol. “We are in a good position,” he says.

Seeing the fulfilment of its initial goals, the cooperative now aims for bigger goals. For starters, it wants to acquire certification from international accreditation institutions, which is essential for success in highly developed export markets. “When we sent our products to Italy, they asked us for product certification,” he says.

Processing of such a certification may take up to five years, Coquilla says. In the meantime, the cooperative asks help from experts in the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, which sends teams every year to test the cooperative’s products and ensure they remain of the highest quality and are bacteria-free. In 2012, the cooperative received a huge order from Askinosie Chocolates. In order to meet the order for 12 metric tons (MT) of cacao, the cooperative needed a capital of Php1.2 million. Hence, PEF provided a much-needed Php800,000 loan, thus augmenting the cooperative’s working capital. The cooperative succeeded in shipping the order on time, building its good reputation and strengthening its relationship with the American company. PEF has provided other kinds of assistance to the cooperative. It regularly facilitates learning workshops for social enterprises, including a mentoring program, which Coquilla says is very helpful.

“We need more of those,” says Coquilla referring to the six-module program. With the cooperative’s growth, it needs to fine tune its management systems and procedures. The cooperative has even bigger dreams. It now wants to make chocolates itself. An important step toward this direction was made recently, when the Department of Agriculture turned over to the cooperative a processing facility for making tablea chocolates. The cooperative members were ecstatic with this development. “We are getting into chocolate-making!” Coquilla says.

With such foresight, passion and dedication to quality, the cooperative may soon see the fulfillment of its ambitious target—to put chocolate bars labelled Made in Davao in the international market. Indeed, sweet dreams are made of these.