Behind the scenes of CasaLuker’s Colombian chocolate dream

Anna Burnell spent a week in Colombia for ‘the trip of lifetime’ where she had been invited to learn more about CasaLuker’s model for growing cacao sustainably and experience its long-term vision for social change.

 

CasaLuker is a family-owned business that has been producing chocolate for 110 years. Locally, they’re known for drinking chocolate made from 100% cocoa mass, but since 2010 when they started exporting origin chocolate couverture, their international reputation and portfolio have been growing rapidly.

They use only Fino de Aroma beans – an ICCO classification that applies to just 8 per cent of the world’s cocoa. All Fino de Aroma cacao comes from trinitario and criollo beans.

Due to the close relationship CasaLuker holds with the cocoa growers and its training programmes, they are able to work with farmers to produce cocoa with a special aroma and flavour and buy approximately 38 per cent of the Colombian total cocoa production; 1600 tonnes a month on average.

Luker believes in sharing opportunities, technology and the knowledge behind cocoa growing. After fifty-six years of driving cacao research, innovation and education through their research centre, Granja Luker – a facility through which 700 cacao farmers a year receive training – last year CasaLuker launched their latest initiative, ‘The Chocolate Dream’; a long-term project to implement change throughout Colombia through cacao, bringing employment, stability and productivity.

At 550 hectares, the site of the Chocolate Dream is Farm El Rosario in Necoclí, in the mostly rural Antioquia state of Colombia. Formerly it employed between two and five cattle farmers, and now the project provides work for one hundred and fifty – with that figure expected to reach two hundred by the end of the year.

CasaLuker are using their tried and tested agroforestry model of planting cacao trees under the shade of melina wood trees and with plantain. The three help each other to thrive interdependently in ideal growing conditions and all mean pay outs for the farmer at different times – bringing a sustainable and scalable income. 600,000 trees have been planted to date; the largest cacao forest in Colombia.

Major environmental scheme

The Necoclí project is made up of fifteen ideals which are closely aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development programme. These goals include working in partnership with existing educational institutions to help upgrade education quality, training cocoa farmers, promoting environmental projects to which experts from all fields are invited to contribute, exchanging knowledge, promoting entrepreneurship and innovation, and fostering the arts and humanities.

The challenge is huge. After a record breaking heatwave in 2015 almost killed off the plantation and the operation, CasaLuker decided they needed to install a huge scale drip irrigation system to ensure the cacao trees received the 40 litres of water they each require every day.

This wasn’t in the original budget and no one on hand had the expertise to carry it out, but as Sergio Restrepo, CasaLuker’s marketing manager and descendant of CasaLuker’s founder explained as we looked out across the huge reservoir they have created, “this project is bigger than all of us, and we see this as a worthwhile investment to help all of us achieve our vision.”

An expert team was hired and the 26 hectare reservoir was built to supply water when rainfall was not sufficient. 1700 kilometres of hoses were required to reach all 500,000 trees, alongside four powerful motors, to create the largest drip irrigation system so far in Colombia. This was a physical embodiment of CasaLuker’s passion for and commitment to The Chocolate Dream, as well as their open attitude to receiving help and expertise from professionals in all industries.

Facing climate change

Climate change is just one of the obstacles the project has to overcome. 86 per cent of households in the region are still in poverty, and young adults face a 45 per cent unemployment rate. It was very inspiring to meet young people working on the plantation who told of their plans to stay in the area, to develop skills that would help not only to grow the plantation but to further their own prospects, and to improve the infrastructure of the region for future generations. Previously the young faced unemployment or having to leave the area to for education and for work. Cacao production has scope for improving lives in the present and for generations to come.
What can the cocoa industry learn from The Chocolate Dream? The phrase I kept hearing over and again during my time with CasaLuker in Colombia was, “this is bigger than all of us.” CasaLuker share their agroforestry model and their knowledge with anyone who cares to ask – even their competitors – simply because they believe that a stronger, more sustainable cocoa industry can only benefit the people who work and thrive within it.

They have placed this philosophy at the heart of The Chocolate Dream, believing that if they concentrate on bringing reform to the infrastructure of Colombia – to its economy, culture, education and environment – then the profit will continue to take care of themselves.
As Alberto Agudelo, CasaLuker’s Technical Director once said, “CasaLuker is a company with a special kind of magic.” This magic is certainly manifesting in the effects of The Chocolate Dream, where a bright future grows among the cocoa trees.

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