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Feature: The Chocolate Year

· Our Journey,Cacao News

The global demand for cacao and its products is being acknowledged in the Philippines, most especially in Davao City. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the region produced over 6,000 metric tons of cacao in 2016--with about 1,600 coming from Davao City. Government agencies including the tourism board have been hand-in-hand with providing assistance and education to farmers, entrepreneurs and producers.

One such association is the Cacao Industry Development Association (CIDAMI), promoting the cultivation of cacao farms in Mindanao. Cacao Culture Farms' co-founder Kenneth Reyes-Lao was one of the attendees of the trainings that CIDAMI has conducted to farmers and entrepreneurs.

"(The cacao industry) is one of the most thriving right now. We also found out that you can also produce your own chocolate if you own a cacao farm. So it’s a concept that we really like," he said of the decision to get into the agriculture business in 2016.

Leaving the corporate world in Manila and coming to Davao to venture into cacao farming, Kenneth and his wife Shiela used their learnings to start a small half-hectare nursery. “We didn’t know anything and we jumped right into it,” he recalls.

From a nursery of 200,000-seedling capacity, the husband and wife tandem continued to immerse themselves in learning more about developing their own farm, trading high-quality fermented cacao beans, and--later on--manufacturing cacao products.

In 2017, Kenneth was tapped to manage the Cocoa Foundation of the Philippines (COCOAPHIL) facility. “On a personal level, I took the job because of the learning process that comes with it,” he says.

A cacao plant takes about three years to harvest, but as "serendipity" would have it, neighboring farms started to ask if Cacao Culture Farms was interested in buying their harvest. "I ended up fast-tracking our product development,” he shares.

Talking about the cacao to chocolate process, he explains, “Once the cacao plants are harvested, the pods (the fruit itself) is broken and the beans are taken out to be fermented.” The farm then uses the traditional way of fermenting beans of storing it in wooden boxes for seven days.

"During the fermentation process, the chocolate taste develops," he explains. If you peer through the box, you would see that the beans seemed to have melted into each other; the boxes heat up at around 40-50 degrees, and are churned daily. After the sixth day, the beans are dried using solar and gas-heated dryers.

Once dried, the beans are sorted. "If the farm is not taken care of, there would be a lot of flat beans, so even though you have a fruit, the beans may not be big enough. The more good beans a cacao fruit has, the bigger its value," he explains about the quality of beans. The farmers get little profit if they get a lot of flat beans; only 70% of the nibs will be usable for making chocolate. Nibs are then grounded and melted into tablea, cooled, then molded into blocks of raw chocolate.

“Cacao Culture Farms, in its one-year operation, has already produced actual consumer products.” Their products--cacao nibs, cacao tea, chocolate tablea and more--are also showcased in Cacao City, a themed cafe launched by the Davao City Agriculturist Office (CAO) beside the People's Park.

“We actually feel good as being now one of the cacao producers in Davao,” Kenneth says. “It’s such a shame that we used to export cacao to other countries and end up importing them back as chocolates, which we could have made ourselves. Now, in Davao city, we have proven that we could make our own chocolates.”

The Davao city government continues to support cacao farmers, producers and entrepreneurs towards producing globally competitive chocolates. In 2017, a P2 million budget was allocated specifically for the development of the cacao industry.

Photos and excerpts from the interview by Fred Layno of Best of Davao for the article "The Chocolate Year".

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