Exploring the Current State of Colombia’s Cacao-Chocolate Industry through Cacao Hunters

As a cacao-producer, Colombia would be considered a minnow when compared to the cacao-growing giants of West Africa––Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Cameron, which constitutes approximately 70% of global production.[1] Even closer to home, Colombia is dwarfed by neighboring Brazil, and is outperformed by smaller Ecuador fourfold.[2] As a result, the cacao sector of Colombia receives less attention both within literature and the media than its fellow Latin American producers. That is finally changing, however. For the past several decades, the Colombian cacao-chocolate industry, with the support of its government, has been hard at work in strategically positioning itself within the fine cacao market, specifically by focusing on growing Fino de Aroma[3] cacao. As a result, it has drawn the attention of confectionary giants the likes of Barry Callebaut AG[4] and Ferrero SPA.[5],[6] Colombia’s pursuit of growing high-quality cacao has additionally obtained the support of several international development initiatives, including those of Swisscontact,[7] USAID[8] and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ).[9] Their hope is to foster agro-sustainability and socioeconomic equality that will yield both economic and social upgrading, particularly for the growers. Their goal is to implement much needed improvements throughout Colombia’s cacao-chocolate value chain. As a result, Colombia has alas become one of the most recent entrants to the fine chocolate-making world. In an effort to reduce the knowledge gap in the global map of cacao-chocolate production, I will provide an examination of the current state of Colombia’s cacao-chocolate industry, by focusing on its Fino de Aroma sector and by providing a brief ethnographic summary of one of its newest and most successful fine chocolate brands, Cacao Hunters.[10]

Cacao Hunters in a “Bean-Shell”

Cacao Hunters is the chocolate brand for Cacao de Colombia created by Colombian native Carlos Ignacio Velasco and Mayumi Osaka of Japan. In 2009, Velasco, with his 12 plus-years experience working for the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (Colombian Coffee Growers Federation),[11] created Cacao de Colombia, branding his chocolate by highlighting the origins and the communities from which the beans were acquired.[12] His strategy was a break from mainstream Colombian chocolate-makers, and it paid off. He saw an untapped market, which allowed him to use his expertise and the collaboration of some of his former colleagues at the Federation, to break into the fine chocolate market, seeing that Colombia is poised to becoming one of the world’s leading fine cacao-growing powerhouses.

Cacao Hunters is part of Cacao de Colombia’s fine bean to bar brand, highlighting the origins and communities from which the cacao are acquired (source: http://www.cacaohunters.com/)

Velasco envisioned a three-pronged strategy: (1) building knowledge; (2) infrastructure; (3) and a business plan that would mutually benefit both buyer and seller. The first and the third were in place. They began transferring their knowledge, by providing classes on technical and sustainable practices on growing and harvesting high-quality cacao to growers throughout the country, incentivizing them toward excellence by offering, in some cases, 50% above market value for quality beans. As for infrastructure, the company needed help, which it successfully obtained from international organizations, such as Swisscontact and USAID; and, won an award for innovation from GIZ, which provided the resources to build a model farm and postharvest plant in the small river town of Aracataca,[13] located nearby the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta[14] mountain range. In 2015, the company sold $1 million USD worth of fine chocolate, winning awards at international competitions including the Gold at the 2015 World Finals of the International Chocolate Awards in London.[15] And with the support of the Acumen fund[16] at the tune of $1.15 million, Cacao Hunters sales for this year are expected to surpass $3 million.[17] Cacao Hunters’ partnership with Acumen and other international players have initiated an economic and social upgrading throughout the company’s value chain. An impressive feat given that this increase was achieved amid a globally depressed commodities market. Nonetheless, the demand for fine chocolate grows. The below is video of Salon du Chocolat, “the world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate,” is an important part of the fine chocolate world, including boutique brands like Cacao Hunters, who attended the 2016 Tokyo edition.

Indigenous Shareholders are Represented

Cacao Hunters works closely with one of Colombia’s most geographically remote indigenous nations, the Arhuaco.[18] Although Cacao Hunters purchases its cacao from various sectors of the country, they advocate for socio-responsibility and equitable engagement with their growers in the pursuit of fostering mutual economic and social upgrading. And their engagement with the Arhuaco has paid off, for it was Cacao Hunter’s Arhuaco 72% dark chocolate bar that took Gold at the 2015 World Finals in London. It is a significant achievement for the Arhuaco growers, especially given that they are ill supported and underrepresented within the Colombian government. As part of a campaign to promote their products in the ever-growing Japanese market, Cacao Hunters chose Hernan, one of the Arhuaco tribe leaders, to be part of the team to represent the company at the 2016 Salon du Chocolat-Tokyo.[19]

 photo, taken from Cacao Hunters’ Facebook page, shows co-founder Mayumi Osaka purchasing bean during one of her “market day with Arhuacos: a several hours’ journey down from the Sierra Nevada mountains.” Far right, is Hernan, of one the Arhuaco leaders who was flown to the 2016 Salon du Chocolat – Tokyo edition. (source: Cacao Hunters’FaceBook).

Colombia: A Privileged Ecological Site for Cacao-Growing

Although its neighbors, particularly Venezuela and Ecuador, are known for their fine cacao, Colombia, however, albeit its ecological advantages, is less known. It is only just now coming on line, and for good reasons.[20] The country is ecologically privileged to grow cacao. In fact, Colombia is considered one of the five “megadiverse countries” in the world.[21] With only 0.8% of the world’s land, it hosts close to 15% of the world’s biodiversity, making Colombia, per square kilometer, the most biodiverse country on the planet.[22] This richly endowed nation thus possesses multiple, ideal-growing regions with the capacity to expand exponentially (see figure below).

The Cacao Growing Regions in Colombia (source: Cacao de Colombia)[23]

This comes as no surprise to many cacao-chocolate scholars as there is strong research showing that the genetic cradle and the most diversified genetic materials of Theobroma cacao is found is in South America, specifically, the large bean-shape area of the Upper Amazon, encompassing southern Perú, to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the border areas between Perú, Brazil and, of course, Colombia (see image below).[24]


For a very thorough and scholarly presentation of the genetic origins of Theobroma Cacao L., see the salient contribution of Evert Thomas et al., “Present Spatial Diversity Patterns of Theobroma Cacao L. in the Neotropics Reflect Genetic Differentiation in Pleistocene Refugia Followed by Human-Influenced Dispersal,” ed. Dorian Q. Fuller, PLoS ONE 7, no. 10 (October 24, 2012): e47676, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047676 (source: Journals Plos)[25]

 Colombia to Become the New Powerhouse in Fino de Aroma Cacao Production

The source of Colombia’s cacao-chocolate heritage and its recent boom onto the world market is the Fino de Aroma cacao. The below video on Fino de Aroma is created by one of Colombia largest exporter of chocolate, Casa Luker. Although this video is part of the company’s promotional materials, it nonetheless provides a good explanation of the high-quality variety.

(source: CasaLuker Official YouTube Channel)

The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)[26] has classified Colombia as a 95% fine cacao exporter.[27] And, along with Venezuela, Ecuador and Perú, Colombia grows 76% of the world’s Fino de Aroma cacao. Currently, it is Ecuador who leads.[28] But that is about to change. Both Perú and Colombia are poised to leapfrog the Ecuadorians. For Perú’s part, if the current growth rate of its exports continues unhindered, their cacao sector could expand beyond 214,000 mt in 2020, which would easily surpass Ecuador’s current exports of 116,000 mt, according to José Iturrios, director of the Alianza Cacao Perú[29] (Perú Cocoa Alliance.)[30] However, Perú, unlike Colombia, is only classified at 75% Fino de Aroma, which means that a significant portion of their yield will not be premium cacao, thus reducing their share of the market. The Colombian government, however, plans to substantially back its growers by adding up to 80,000 ha of Fino de Aroma plantations, as they wish to capitalize on the growing global demand.[31] Since 2005, Colombian cacao production has been rising. Back then it only cultivated 96,000 ha, yielding approximately 17,000 mt of cacao.[32] Today, Colombia’s yield is roughly 50,000 mt, but, with the addition of the 80,000 ha of Fino de Aroma plantations being replanted in the following departments: Santander, North Santander, Nariño, Tolima, Huila, Antioquia and Meta, they will be able to expand their yields to over 138,450 mt, surpassing both Ecuador and Perú, making Colombia the world’s lead Fino de Aroma producers.[33]

Cacao Hunters Bean to Bar Strategy Breaks from the Colonial Scheme and Disrupts the Asymmetric Buyer-Seller Dynamic

All of this is good news for Colombia’s chocolate-makers, especially Cacao Hunters who only uses 100% Colombian premium in their bars. In using their native beans, the company effectively breaks from the colonizer-colony scheme that persists within many developing countries. This is significant given that historically raw materials of erstwhile territories were sent back to the Europe, a pattern that persists today, with the inclusion of US among the major end-product manufacturers. This is especially true with the cacao-chocolate industry. Cacao is 100% grown in the Global South, yet the lion’s share is sent to Europe and the US, in raw form, who then primarily turn it into sugar-laden, artificially saturated, under 15% bulk chocolate food stuff, while reaping 96% of the profits.[34] As discussed in my April 8th post, “The Real Celebrities Behind Chocolate,” there is additionally gross misreprentation and a highly asymmetric buyer-seller dynamic within the cacao-chocolate global value chain that poorly remunerates growers, while enhancing the coffers of Big Chocolate.[35]

Cacao Hunter’s involvement with their shareholders, which include the aforementioned Arhuaco nation, is premised on mutual sustainable and equitable upgrading for all throughout their value chain. And, by manufacturing their chocolate in their Popayan facility, they successfully break from the asymmetric buyer-seller relationship, and successfully disrupt the north-south paradigm, in which many cacao growers find themselves embedded. There needs to be a transformation of global sourcing, as it has had a negative impact on gender, racial and socioeconomic equality.[36] Lead firms irresponsibly reinforce and drive the prevailing imbalance that further proliferates negative social reproduction within sourced nations. By contrast, the Cacao Hunters’ stratagem highlights the implication of liberalizing global production of cacao at the local level. This is especially important given that cocoa–chocolate global value chains have “significantly consolidated” in recent years.[37] Processors and chocolate companies have merged, leaving a few as lead firms within the industry, severely disadvantaging the market against smaller and localized companies. Cacao Hunters’ engagement with the indigenous and the rural communities proactively seeks to not only disrupt this imbalance but furthermore aims to contribute to their social and economic upgrading.

What Lies ahead for Cacao Hunters

Cacao Hunters joins the ranks of other South American chocolate brands, the likes of Pacari[38] of Ecuador, and Venezuela’s Chocolates El Rey,[39] who themselves are recent phenomena in South America, explains food historian Dr. Maricel Presilla.[40] They “are taking chocolate into their own hands and creating factories that can compete internationally.”[41] They have a good understanding of how to incorporate local ingredients and flavors, creating beautiful creations with ingredients such as guanábana, tamarind and canella, flavors that are unique to Latin America and increasingly becoming more popular in the North American and European mainstreams.[42] The cacao and other ingredients they use to produce their chocolate is directly sourced and locally grown. And Cacao Hunters is a part of it.

Though there is a slow down in world demand and production of bulk cacao, the growth rate and demand for high-quality beans treks firmly upward, and that too is good news for Colombians, including Cacao Hunters.[43] In fact, “there’s real excitement about investment in Colombia” says Dough Hawkins, Managing Director of Hardman Agribusiness.[44],[45] In their 2016 company report on the current state of the world’s cacao production, Colombia is on everyone’s radar, especially given that the government’s peace talks with the FARC is close to conclusion.[46] Moreover, the demand for an expanding Colombian cacao sector is due to a ‘move away’ from West Africa, explains Hardman Agribusiness:

Future cocoa demand will be met by a thriving professionalized sector in Latin America as chocolate makers move away from a “structurally blighted” West African market…[47] Cocoa is a fragmented sector… With the commodity in shortening supply and now being a $12bn plus annually traded segment in the softs market, there is a swell of developing interest in its production and capital flows are increasing to support that production. Our research report lays bare a spiral of decline in Asia and the unpalatable truth about African production whilst shining a spotlight on the exciting developments in Latin America.[48]

It would then behoove all within the Colombian cacao-chocolate sector to continue their pursuit towards producing high-quality beans, not only to satiate the demands of their foreign buyers, but to also support their own native brands. Cacao Hunter not only serves as an excellent model for other native brands to follow, but also for all aspiring bean to bar companies the worldover. They demonstrate good practices, are socially and environmentally responsible, engage growers with dignity, and pursue the mutual upgrading for all within their value chain. And becuase of this, Cacao Hunters has robustly contributed to the sweet taste of Colombian fine chocolate.

Notes and References

[1] Isis Almeida, “Why 2015’s Best Commodity Could Turn Into This Year’s Nightmare – Bloomberg,” Business News, Bloomberg, (January 5, 2016), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-05/why-2015-s-best-commodity-could-turn-into-this-year-s-nightmare.

[2] Vladimir Pekic, “Colombia Plans to Replant High-Quality Fino de Aroma Cocoa Plantations,” Business News, Confectionery News, (August 18, 2014), http://www.confectionerynews.com/Commodities/Colombia-plans-to-replant-high-quality-Fino-de-Aroma-cocoa.

[3] “Cacao Fino de Aroma,” Food and Chocolate Company, Casa Luker | Food Ingredients, (2016), http://www.lukeringredients.com/en/home.

[4] Barry Callebaut is over 150 year old Swiss company, and one of the largest manufacturer of high-quality chocolate and cocoa. See “Barry Callebaut Is a B2B Chocolate & Cocoa Manufacturer,” Chocolate Manufacturers, Barry Callebaut, accessed May 9, 2016, https://www.barry-callebaut.com/.

[5] Ferrero SpA is an Italian manufacturer of chocolate and confectionery products and is the third largest chocolate-confectionery company in the world. See “Ferrero Corporate,” Chocolate Manufacturers, Ferrero, accessed May 9, 2016, https://www.ferrero.com/.

[6] “Operations At The Cacao Hunter Chocolate Factory As Colombia Aims To Increase Production,” Stock Photo Agency, Getty Images, (October 6, 2014), http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/chocolate-awaits-packaging-after-being-removed-from-molds-news-photo/456939106.

[7] “SwissCompany,” Coporate Legal Consultation, SwissCompany, accessed May 9, 2016, http://www.swiss-company.ch/en/home.asp.

[8] USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid to foreign nations. See “U.S. Agency for International Development,” The United States Agency for International Development, USAID From the American People, accessed May 9, 2016, https://www.usaid.gov/.

[9] See “GIZ | Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Internationale Zusammenarbeit,” Owned by German Federal Government for its Economic and Development Initiatives, GIZ, accessed May 10, 2016, https://www.giz.de/en/worldwide/germany.html.

[10] “Cacao Hunters®,” Chocolate Company, Cacao Hunters, accessed May 11, 2016, http://www.cacaohunters.com/.

[11] “Colombian Coffee Growers Federation,” Coffee Federation, Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, accessed May 10, 2016, http://www.federaciondecafeteros.org/caficultores/en/.

[12] “Empresa Colombiana Conquista la Élite del Chocolate,” Business News, Dinero, (January 21, 2016), http://www.dinero.com/edicion-impresa/negocios/articulo/carlos-ignacio-velasco-cacao-de-colombia/218326.

[13] Aracataca is best known for being the birthplace of one Colombia’s most famous Nobel literature laureate, Gabriel García Márquez. See “Aracataca – Colombia,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, January 26, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aracataca&oldid=701840576.

[14] The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. It is also home to some of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, including the Arhuaco nation. See “Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, April 12, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sierra_Nevada_de_Santa_Marta&oldid=714813686.

[15] “World Final Winners – 2015,” Chocolate Industry Awards, International Chocolate Awards, (2015), http://www.internationalchocolateawards.com/2015/10/world-final-winners-2015/.

[16] Acumen aims to raise “charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way the world tackles poverty.” See “Acumen | Who We Are,” Non-profit global venture organization to address poverty, Acumen, (2016), http://acumen.org/about/.

[17] “Empresa Colombiana Conquista la Élite del Chocolate.”

[18] “Arhuaco People,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, December 31, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arhuaco_people&oldid=697526704.

[19] Salon du Chocolat is the world largest chocolate trade show. See “Le Salon Du Chocolat,” Chocolate Industry Trade Show, Salon Du Chocolat, (2016), http://www.salonduchocolat.fr/accueil.aspx.

[20] “Empresa Colombiana Conquista la Élite del Chocolate.”

[21] “Colombia is listed as one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries, hosting close to 10% of the planet’s biodiversity. Worldwide, it ranks first in bird and orchid species diversity and second in plants, butterflies, freshwater fishes and amphibians. With 314 types of ecosystems, Colombia possesses a rich complexity of ecological, climatic, biological and ecosystem components. Colombia was ranked as one of the world’s richest countries in aquatic resources.” See “Colombia – Overview: National Biodiversity,” UN Science Body | Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), UN Convention on Biological Diversity, (2016), https://www.cbd.int/countries/?country=co.

[22] “Stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the country covers “only” 0.8% of the world’s land surface, yet, with between 45,000 and 51,000 species, it is home to some 15% of the all plant species in the world. And with1,752 bird species and 583 amphibians, Colombia has a biodiversity of fauna unrivalled by any other country. Moreover, in terms of the number of species of flora that only occur in one specific region, the so-called endemic species, Colombia is also a world leader.” See: “Implementing the Convention on Biodiversity,” Environmental and Biodiversity, Biodiversity Day, (June 9, 2001), http://www.biodiversity-day.info/2001/english/bday-colombia.html.

[23] “Cacao de Colombia > Cacao Region,” Chocolate Company, Cacao de Colombia, (2012), http://www.cacaodecolombia.com/CacaoRegion.aspx.

[24] For a very thorough and scholarly presentation of the genetic origins of Theobroma Cacao L., see the salient contribution of Evert Thomas et al., “Present Spatial Diversity Patterns of Theobroma Cacao L. in the Neotropics Reflect Genetic Differentiation in Pleistocene Refugia Followed by Human-Influenced Dispersal,” ed. Dorian Q. Fuller, PLoS ONE 7, no. 10 (October 24, 2012): e47676, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047676.

[25] Ibid.

[26] The ICCO is the international monitoring body of cacao-chocolate production and consumption. See “The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) | Cocoa Producing and Cocoa Consuming Countries,” International Cocoa Organization, ICCO.org, (2016), http://www.icco.org/.

[27] Luker Official, Learn More About CasaLuker Food Ingredients – Fino de Aroma Cacao, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=56&v=OZoT7qN1aow.

[28] Pekic, “Colombia Plans to Replant High-Quality Fino de Aroma Cocoa Plantations.”

[29] Alianza Cacao Perú (ACP) is a USAID initiative assisting Peruvian cacao sector with the intent of providing the rural population an alternative to cultivating coca as a cash crop. See USAID Peru, Alianza Cacao Perú, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpxFaVDhYnU.

[30] Vladimir Pekic, “Inca Empire Strikes Back: Perú Could Dethrone Ecuador as Leading Global Producer of ‘Fino de Aroma’ Cocoa by 2020,” News on Confectionery & Biscuit Processing, Confectionery News, (June 26, 2015), http://www.confectionerynews.com/Commodities/Perú-could-overtake-Ecuador-as-fine-flavor-cocoa-king.

[31] Pekic, “Colombia Plans to Replant High-Quality Fino de Aroma Cocoa Plantations.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Edward Enriquez, “The Real Celebrities Behind Chocolate,” WordPress, Chocolate Class, (April 8, 2016), https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/the-real-celebrities-behind-chocolate/comment-page-1/.

[35] For a candid discussion on the misrepresentation and socioeconomic inequality within Mars’ global value chain, see Ibid.

[36] Stephanie Barrientos provides a salient scholarly contribution in her analysis of Big Chocolate cocoa–chocolate sourcing, exploring the interplay between commercial value chains and societal norms. See Stephanie Barrientos, “Gendered Global Production Networks: Analysis of Cocoa–Chocolate Sourcing,” Regional Studies 48, no. 5 (May 4, 2014): 791–803, doi:10.1080/00343404.2013.878799.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Pacari | History,” Chocolate Company, Pacari, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.pacarichocolate.com/en/index.php/history.

[39] “Chocolates El Rey Venezuelan Chocolate,” Chocolate Company, Chocolates El Rey, accessed May 11, 2016, http://www.chocolates-elrey.com/.

[40] “Maricel Presilla,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, May 4, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maricel_Presilla&oldid=718572676.

[41] Ana Sofía Peláez, “One Food Historian’s Mission to Promote Latin America’s Fine Cacao,” News, NBC News, (February 22, 2016), http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/one-food-historian-s-mission-promote-latin-america-s-fine-n511606.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Doug Hawkins, “Destruction by Chocolate – Hardman Agribusiness,” Argibusiness Consultants, Hardman Agribusiness, accessed May 11, 2016, http://www.hardmanagribusiness.com/product/chocolate/.

[44] Hardman Agribusiness is a lead investment consulting agency for agribusiness enterprises. See “Hardman Agribusiness,” Argibusiness Consultants, Hardman Agribusiness, (2016), http://www.hardmanagribusiness.com/.

[45] Oliver Nieburg, “Cocoa’s Future Lies in Latin America: Report,” Confectionary Industry News, Confectionery News, (March 29, 2016), http://www.confectionerynews.com/Commodities/Cocoa-s-future-lies-in-Latin-America-Report.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hawkins, “Destruction by Chocolate – Hardman Agribusiness.”

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Almeida, Isis. “Why 2015’s Best Commodity Could Turn Into This Year’s Nightmare – Bloomberg.” Business News. Bloomberg, January 5, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-05/why-2015-s-best-commodity-could-turn-into-this-year-s-nightmare.

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———. “Inca Empire Strikes Back: Peru Could Dethrone Ecuador as Leading Global Producer of ‘Fino de Aroma’ Cocoa by 2020.” News on Confectionery & Biscuit Processing. Confectionery News, June 26, 2015. http://www.confectionerynews.com/Commodities/Peru-could-overtake-Ecuador-as-fine-flavor-cocoa-king.

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