Source: Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd.
Source Type: Privately owned fermentary and social enterprise
Beans Source: Purchased wet from over 350 producers
Fermentation Style: Linear box system, fermented for 6-7 days
Drying Style: Greenhouse design with mesh covered decks, 7-14 days
Cultivation Notes: Grown by Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya
Exporter: Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd.
Importer: Atlantic Cocoa / Dandelion Chocolate
Tasting Notes: Green grape, pineapple, honey
Start of working relationship: 2012
Last Visit: Feb 2016 by Bret, Collette, Emma, Kelsey, Maverick, Meredyth and Greg
Tonnes Purchased in 2016: 17.7 MT
Purchased TOTAL (lifetime): ~30 MT
Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) is a social enterprise established in order to connect small-scale cacao growers in Belize to the international specialty cacao market. Located in Toledo, the least-developed region of Belize, they were the first company in the country to buy wet beans from farmers and emphasize the importance of quality. With a centralized fermentary, MMC purchases from family farms in southern Belize, committing to a consistent price throughout the season. MMC is currently buying from 411 farmers and a majority of these farmers have been suppliers for more than two years. Dandelion has been buying beans from MMC since 2013 and while we have witnessed their growth and success, we have also witnessed the challenges they face. 2017 was a particularly challenging year for MMC as they faced competition from seven other buyers in an area that produces less than 150 tonnes of cacao per year on average. It is useful to look at the participation of these buyers in the market and its impact on the viability of the sector.
The popularity of both craft chocolate and bars made from Belizean cacao in particular has been growing for years. With brands like Mast Brothers, Dandelion Chocolate, and Taza Chocolate producting Belizean bars, people around the world started to pay attention to the tiny amount of cocoa coming out of Southern Belize. This led to something of a gold rush. Up until 2016, the only buyers in Toledo were MMC and the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA), which was started in 1984 and exclusively sells to Green & Black’s. In 2017, six new buyers joined the market, operating with a variety of business models. XOCO Gourmet Cocoa & Couverture (XOCO), which operates in multiple Central American countries, sells a specific high-priced clone to producers as part of an outgrower structure (including exclusivity) with the promise of a similarly high return when the cacao is purchased. Another buyer, The Belize Cacao Consortium (BCC) came in promoting private foreign investment and bought land for cacao production. Others came as part of Christian missions and development grants. While competition can be a good thing, in this case it caused a market bubble.
Almost immediately the competition caused the price of wet beans to shoot up. Farmers were making more money! Trucks from fermenters were literally cutting each other off on the road to be the first to a farm. At one point in 2017, MMC was paying producers $4.50/kg dry weight equivalent for wet beans in order to compete. Farmers put huge amounts of time and money into expanding their cocoa production. Some paid thousands of dollars for the highest quality seedlings. If you’re familiar with the history of other market bubbles, you can imagine what happened next.
As of 2019, only MMC and 2 other buyers remain (TCGA and BCC) . TCGA was consistently buying fermented beans for almost 25 years and while they still exist their financial challenges mean they no longer provide a reliable market for farmers. The Belize Cacao Consortium is largely focused on their own farms and as such don’t buy much cocoa from other farmers. In the end, XOCO never purchased cocoa from anyone. There wasn’t enough cacao to support all these businesses and there wasn’t enough demand on the craft chocolate side to buy cacao at the inflated prices being paid. While it seems like making more money, even for 1 year, is a good thing, there is a downside when it sets an incorrect expectation. The money that was spent on expanding cocoa production is not coming back. The crops that were ignored need to be tended again. The farmers that took out loans need to pay them back. Today, MMC is paying $3.25/kg dry weight equivalent for wet beans. This is still significantly more for wet beans than farmers around the world typically get for dried beans, but it’s lower than what farmers thought they would make. Farmers bore the brunt of the market collapse.
MMC is doing its best to support the farmers who are trying to figure out what’s next. They are buying more beans than before and lowering the price to chocolate makers to encourage them to buy larger quantities of beans. They are following through on the projects they had started pre-2017 like the demonstration farm. This farm helps educate producers on best practices and allow them to try out new management practices such as grafting, use of different genetics. MMC is also actively supporting the integration of other crops, as well as experimenting with shade/sun practices (which can increase yield and/or the lifetime of trees) for more sustainable overall practices and to help producers increase their yield. MMC’s new post-harvest processing facility is more centrally located and more efficient, making it easier and cheaper for MMC to produce better cacao which allows them to buy more.
We thought it was important to talk about what happened in 2017 as a cautionary tale. Traveling around the Toledo region provides a clear idea of the challenges created by poor business models. The seemingly abandoned Maya House of Cacao, a museum celebrating cacao and funded by the European Commission and the TCGA, sits on the main road from Punta Gorda, providing a reminder of the lofty and unfulfilled promises to the farmers of the region.