Empowering Local Farmers Through Chocolate

By Jessica Pag-iwayan

Chocolate is one of the most consumed products in the world today. Based on a recent Statista report, people around the globe consumed about 7.6 million metric tons of retail confectionery chocolate in the last two years alone. And that number is expected to increase in the coming years. It’s no wonder that businessmen and food enthusiasts are venturing into the chocolate making industry.

Among them are Mark Mendoza Ocampo and Kelly Go, who launched Auro Chocolate May of last year. According to Ocampo, Auro was established out of their passion to make high quality chocolate products from local cacao.

Davao and Laguna is home to the Criollo or the “Prince of Cocoas.”

“At around 2010, Kelly and I were living in the United States (US). In a cafe, we saw a chocolate bar manufactured in the US using cacao from the Philippines. We realized that at that time, there were no notable chocolate brands in the Philippines yet, so we thought that it would be a perfect way to start something that we both love,” he explains.

Discovering Hidden Treasures

Although Filipinos are not the world’s largest chocolate consumers, our land is home to the rarest and most prized type of cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) in the world–the Criollo. Called the “Prince of Cocoas,” it can be found in abundance in Davao and Laguna. However, Criollo is difficult to grow because it is vulnerable to environmental threats such as humidity and incompatibility with some types of plants that grow near it.

Discovering that we have Criollo in the country has added fuel to the passion of the Auro team to create international-grade chocolates from these cacao trees while helping our local farmers nurture the gift that nature has given us.

On Working Hand in Hand with the Farmers

Unfortunately, not all cacao farmers are aware of the treasure that’s right in front of their eyes. Ocampo says that some of them had cut their Criollo trees because they didn’t understand its value. With that, part of Auro’s aspiration is to help educate our farmers to maximize their harvest, while introducing them to international standards to ensure the quality of the cacao beans they will produce.

In order to achieve this, they created a technical support group that aids a total of 80 farmers in 10 cooperatives in Davao. The group teaches members how to treat their farms like businesses, using proper planting methods and postharvest practices.

Ocampo admits that it was challenging to work with the farmers at first, particularly when it came to explaining the need for them to meet global standards for cultivating cacao trees. “It was difficult to explain all of these things that we wanted to do. We ended up creating a pricing system wherein we created limits or percents for defects that were willing to accept, so that we can control the quality. If the farmers aren’t able to meet those standards, then unfortunately we’ll have to reject their produce,” he says.

This partnership between the company and the farmers puts everyone in a win-win situation. Farmers can enhance their skills and knowledge and sell their produce at a competitive price, while Auro achieves the quality of cacao they need.

“The experience of working with the farmers was amazing. And what’s nice is how our partnerships have been able to affect change and improve their sector of community. We had some testimonials where a lot of them have been able to pay off all of their loans. They’ve been able to buy laptops for their kids, and at the same time, have reinvested into their own farms to help with their production and capabilities to further increase their revenue throughout the year through farming.”

Aside from Criollo, other types of cacao that they export from Davao are Forastero (the most common cacao bean) and Trinitario (the natural hybrid due to cross pollination).

The Fruits of Labor

Their efforts have been well-rewarded. Today the company produces 15 different types of chocolate that also come in different sizes. These chocolates are crafted to stand against other locally made confectioneries.

The flavor can be a choice between milk chocolate or dark chocolate.

“We are trying to educate people on how cacaos are similar to that of wine; depending on the different environments that are available, it will actually affect the flavor of cacao and the flavor of the chocolate. We made these chocolates in micro batches, so we only make as much chocolate as the harvester produces and at the same time, each of these chocolate bars have different flavors that are indicative of where it grows.” Ocampo says.

And because of the high quality chocolate the company produces, even though they just started a little more than a year ago, they are now reaping support from their consumers. They produce 500 to 600 kilograms of chocolate daily to meet the demand of the market.

They are also the official chocolate supplier for Philippine Airlines (PAL) for both its Business and Economy classes. They also supply chocolates to various hotels. They also recently received their Halal Certification, which opens an opportunity for them to penetrate the Middle Eastern market. The company is also set to open their first brick and mortar shop in Tokyo, Japan later this year.

“For the longest time, there’s a notion that anything that is imported is always better. So it’s a really nice to shift the mindset of the Filipino people. We want products that can compete internationally, in terms of ingredients, and of applications and versatility. That actually creates something that is indicative of the Philippines and what we’re really capable of,” Ocampo ends.

Auro products are now available at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (CBTL) cafes nationwide, and also at Kultura, Chocolate Lovers, and All About Baking.

For more information, visit Auro Chocolate on Facebook

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