Organic Cacao with a Triple Bottom Line: The Very Tasty Story of Maya Mountain Cacao

Uncategorized / Thursday, May 1st, 2014
Me and my neatly raked piles of cacao on the drying beds
at Maya Mountain Cacao

I returned from my week in the jungles of Belize inspired by the story of Maya Mountain Cacao. A for-profit, socially responsible company, Maya Mountain Cacao brings the craft chocolate movement directly to the doorstep of small-holder cacao farmers. The farmers earn more for their cacao, and the craft chocolate makers earn direct access to a consistent supply of some of the best cacao in the world. It enables direct trade to flourish among even the smallest craft chocolate makers. It’s a wonderful win-win situation that benefits everyone involved and is a model for the future of fine flavor cacao.

My introduction to Maya Mountain Cacao (“MMC”) started when Mark and I arrived at the Cotton Tree Lodge on our first day in Belize. Located on the grounds of the lodge, MMC’s fermentation house, drying beds and seedling operations are steps from the cabanas. The grounds are dotted with cacao trees everywhere, and guests are encouraged to pluck ripe pods from trees and partake of the juicy, sweet cacao pulp inside.

Me and Carlos covering fermenting cacao w/banana leaves
Photo courtesy of Bryan Graham, Fruition Chocolate

We were also invited to spend as much time as we’d like at the fermentation house.  I helped MMC’s Carlos and his team move fermenting cacao from the 2nd of three bins to the 3rd and final bin. I had my arms up to my elbows in hot, sticky, wet fermenting cacao, helping to shove beans from the bottom of bin two to the top of bin three while breaking up clumps of beans with my hands. Carlos pulled out his machete to cut long swaths of banana leaves to use as a covering to help build up heat in the boxes of fermenting cacao. We carefully covered the tops of the fermenting piles to ensure there were no “peeping beans”, as Carlos put it. Then I headed to the drying beds, where I learned that the majority of the day is spent raking beans to prevent them from getting moldy. Beans ferment for six days and get moved twice during that process, which means that moving the beans only happens every other day and only takes about 15 minutes. The rest of the time is spent raking.

What’s so special about Maya Mountain Cacao? There are a few things that make it innovative.

Maya Mountain Cacao’s Triple Bottom Line & Partners

MMC is a for-profit, socially responsible company with a triple bottom line that focuses on social, environmental and financial measures of success. Its approach to the business of fine cacao is one that

Alex Whitmore at Hummingbird Farm

encourages the farmers to act economically and make good business decisions. A key founding member of the company is Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, a craft chocolate maker who knows exactly what craft chocolate makers look for in fine cacao. MMC’s ability to deliver cacao that meets the highest requirements of the craft chocolate movement is one of its competitive advantages, and is a major reason why it had a waiting list of 31 craft chocolate makers this year. There just isn’t enough of this fabulous cacao to go around.

Emily Stone at Hummingbird Farm

Another competitive advantage is Emily Stone, MMC’s Managing Director and one of its original founders.

Emily was a shareholder activist in Boston in her mid-twenties, advocating for major corporations to “green” their supply chains. Just about the time she had tired of sitting behind a computer, she met Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate and Jeff Pzena of the Cotton Tree Lodge, who had formulated a plane for Maya Mountain Cacao. Two weeks later, Emily was on a plan to Punta Gorda, Belize. Four years later, she’s never looked back.

I first met Emily at a chocolate makers’ brunch at Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco last January. Emily introduced herself and told me how excited she was that Mark and I were joining Taza’s chocolate week in Belize in March. We had a great conversation, and after she walked away, another chocolate maker approached me. He said, “You don’t understand, Emily controls the Belizean cacao market.” I have to admit I thought that was a bit of hyperbole. Until I saw Emily in action in Belize.

Emily is a force of nature. She’s smart, eloquent, politically savvy, and she knows how to build consensus. Her background in grassroots organizing has been an incredible benefit to her ability to make MMC a success. We arrived the day after the annual farmers meeting. Not only did Emily speak at the meeting, she read her speech in both dialects of Maya spoken by the farmers, Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya. She has a sense of adventure, which is important when you’re traveling around the jungles of Belize, and now Guatemala (MMC just set up a new operation in Guatemala), and she’s not afraid of anything. I had moments of envy, wishing that I had such gumption at her age.

Gabriel Pop, courtesy MMC

It would have been difficult for MMC to be successful, however, without Gabriel Pop, son of the illustrious Eladio Pop, and the fourth founder of MMC. As a local cacao farmer and former Field Director for the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, Gabriel had the relationships and credibility that were necessary for MMC’s success. He believed in MMC’s mission and made the first key introductions by organizing buying days in villages where he knew farmers would be receptive.

One more aspect that makes MMC an innovative company in the Belizean market is its focus on fermentation practices and purchasing wet cacao from the farmers. Traditionally, Belizean farmers would ferment their own cacao and sell it for a dry price. By purchasing wet cacao, MMC controls the fermentation process, resulting in consistent fermentation rates geared towards the craft chocolate market. This brings a level of consistency to a batch of fermented cacao that isn’t possible when farmers are individually controlling the fermentation of their crop.

What’s also really cool is that MMC enables small craft chocolate makers to purchase cacao directly in small quantities, something that has been next to impossible until now. It shortens the supply chain, eliminating the many layers of middlemen common in a commodity supply chain. Farmers are paid a more significant share of the final price for their cacao, and chocolate makers get more value out of their dollar by ensuring that more of what they pay ends up in farmers’ pockets. All of this encourages farmers to continue to produce cacao and to do it with quality in mind.

Me and Mark with Dahlia & Bryan of Fruition Chocolate
Bryan is on a waiting list for MMC cacao.

There are so many additional ways in which MMC has impacted its community. It has increased the acreage certified as organic, rehabilitated land from slash-and-burn agriculture, increased farmer income, improved availability of pre-harvest financing through microcredit, created jobs, and contributed to the emergence of new community leaders.

The team behind MMC has a number of exciting new initiatives that will increase the size of their impact in Belize and in Guatemala. While we were in Belize, MMC signed an operating agreement with the owner of the former Hummingbird Hershey cacao farm. MMC is rehabilitating the farm that was abandoned by Hershey years ago and is turning it into an organic cacao farm that will produce a significant volume of the quality cacao available in Belize. Guatemala is also on the agenda. As we left Belize, Alex and Emily were headed to Guatemala, where they recently set up an operation that has similar goals to MMC.

In my next blog post, I’ll share the story of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, the Fairtrade farmer’s association set up in the Toledo District of Belize. While they were founded in 1986, the majority of their success came in the mid-1990’s when they began selling their cacao to Green & Blacks for the Maya Gold bar. It’s an incredibly interesting story, and we had the opportunity to hear it first hand from the Chair of the farmers association from 1992-1997. It brought to life the advantages and challenges faced by farmers’ associations. I took a lot of notes, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

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