Angel Lituma took a leap of faith in leaving behind the cultivation of yucca and bananas to focus his farming on cacao. Going even further, this visionary resident of Playas de Cuje, Ecuador took yet another leap in giving added value to his seeds, dedicating himself to reproducing both the nacional fino de aroma and trinitaria varieties of cacao.
Lituma was not alone in his innovative approach. Several other farmers from Playas de Cuje were also struggling to make a living and had just begun cacao production. These farmers joined forces in 2013 to form the Association of Production of Cacao and Derived Aromas of the South (ASOPROMAS), a cooperative that now has 18 partners and more than 60 producers. Their goal was to become chocolate artisans by improving their cacao production.
Cacao seeds inside the pod.
“Here in the community there were many people searching for other alternatives, and we decided to get together to work with a more solid team,” explained ASOPROMAS Administrator Carlos Bermeo. The enthusiasm and vision of these residents of Playas de Cuje was supported by the Ecuadorian government and by the Inter-American Foundation (IAF).
“We had to adapt traditional, homegrown ideas with certain technological elements in order to achieve the process necessary to produce our own chocolate,” explained Bermeo. “The help of the IAF has been fundamental in acquiring the tools and training that we needed to move forward.”
In a month, ASOPROMAS processes 25 quintals (1,150 kg) of cacao in pulp. After a process of six days of fermentation, seven days of drying, a half hour of toasting, and 50 hours of conching (a mixing process), the pulp is converted into delicious artisanal gourmet chocolate.
Cacao paste gets weighed after conching (a mixing process).
“It is a process that requires patience and love until we get the bars and candies of 55% and 70% cocoa liquor,” said Marta Lituma, who is in charge of marketing the group’s products.
The success of ASOPROMAS has become an example for other groups both inside and outside of Ecuador. Thanks to the connection with the IAF and the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor Association, representatives from Costa Rica’s Cooperative of Producers of Cacao and Multiple Services of the Southern Caribbean (Cooperativa de Productores de Cacao y Servicios Múltiples del Caribe Sur R.L. - Cacao Afro) visited Playas de Cujo to share and learn about the experiences, knowledge, and procedures involved in processing export-quality fino de aroma cacao.
“The experience is incredibly valuable and provides us with information that we can put into practice in our community to give added value to our cocoa,” explained Yorleny Brenes, a Costa Rican farmer who participated in the exchange program.
Another participating Costa Rican farmer, Ricardo Morris, added: “It is interesting to see how ASOPROMAS, with so little, has achieved many important things. That example is motivational for our cooperative, which is just starting.”
Juan Carlos Barrantes from Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe, Costa Rica with Marta Lituma, ASOPROMAS showing the Ecuadorian chocolate bars.
For two weeks, we are publishing a series of articles about cacao entitled “Food of the Gods” about how the IAF’s community partners are adopting organic production, learning to commercialize their cacao products, improving their livelihoods, and sharing their knowledge. The series title draws from the Latin term for cacao, Theobroma, which means "food of the gods" and speaks to how cacao’s legendary derivative – chocolate – is beloved across the globe.
* Andreas Cordero, is a Journalist and Photographer member of Cooperativa de Productores de Cacao y Servicios Múltiples del Caribe Sur R.L. - Coopecacao Afro who traveled to Ecuador.