Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The impacts of a growing population on natural resources present a massive challenge to development organizations worldwide. Combined with the effects of climate change, it is clear that new and innovative approaches to sustainable economic development are needed to alleviate pressure on natural resources and ensure food security.
Belize, located between Guatemala and Mexico on the Caribbean coast, is at the tipping point of this problem. Belize has the fastest population growth rate of all Central American countries (3.15% in 2012, World Bank) and also the greatest current percentage of forest cover (61.64% in 2012, CATHALAC). As the country’s population grows, deforestation is increasing and high poverty levels persist, especially in rural areas.
In the Toledo District of southern Belize, characterized by 70% indigenous Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya, 69% of the population is considered “poor” and “severe poverty… remains far higher than anywhere else in the country” (Belize Country Poverty Assessment 2009). The Maya of Belize are the most marginalized of Belize’s various ethnic groups, with the highest levels of indigence, worst mother and child health indicators and lowest secondary school assistance rates in the country.
Rural Belizeans typically rely on slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture to feed their families, despite there being little market value for corn, rice, and beans. This traditional practice cuts deeper into forests, as growing families require more land.
As mentioned, Belize’s fledgling cacao industry has historically struggled with quality and production issues because of farmers being required to do their own low-volume fermentations, the impact of climate change on drying of cacao beans, and lack of market incentives for growth. Farmers started abandoning cacao farms to seek jobs or grow other crops.
Organic cacao-based agroforestry provides an economic incentive for rural communities to preserve tropical forests, improving farmer livelihoods and driving industry growth. MMC empowers local producers to run entrepreneurial cacao farms and to grow prosperous farming communities through meaningful market access.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC), co-founded by Emily Stone, brings to the global chocolate industry a new and revolutionary way to source the highest quality cacao (cocoa beans) from smallholder farmers. MMC leverages the power of direct trading relationships and constant innovation to shorten supply chains and catalyze impactful social and environmental development in cacao-growing regions. The development, design, and implementation of MMC was led by Emily Stone in collaboration with chocolate makers Alex Whitmore (Taza Chocolate) and Jeffrey Pzena (Cotton Tree Chocolate, Moho Chocolate) in 2010.
Transparent, tour-able, high-quality cacao sources are not common in the industry, which focuses primarily on commodity-grade product, and are especially uncommon in smallholder farmer-based origins. The vast majority of cacao supply for premium or specialty chocolate makers comes from large plantation-size farmers, who centrally control post harvest processing (fermentation and drying). The "Fair Trade" model, most commonly pursed by chocolate makers to create impact and ensure ethics throughout the supply chain, does not include any incentives for a high quality cacao, limiting the effectiveness of the model for high-value, specialty markets.
MMC combines high-impact sourcing from smallholder farmers with centralized post-harvest processing, marketing, and export. This creates completely transparent business transactions and a true direct farm-to-consumer story for any chocolate manufacturer MMC does business with. MMC's complete control over the quality and fermentation recipe for the cacao allows the company to produce cacao beans of unrivalled quality and cleanliness from smallholder farmers.
MMC introduced centralized post-harvest processing to Belize, buying “wet” cacao from smallholders at the farm gate with immediate, fair compensation. For farmers, this model provides market stability, convenience, and focused attention on growing yields, while ensuring a fair and stable price for their product at or above the fair trade premium. This dynamic is creating rapid growth in Belize’s cacao industry, directly contributing to reducing deforestation risk and providing habitat for species in an internationally-recognized critical biodiversity corridor. Improving productivity yields and market access brings more money into rural indigenous Maya communities that have been growing cacao for generations.
Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) is the first and only entity to directly connect indigenous family farmers in Belize to the organic bean-to-bar chocolate market in the U.S. Premium chocolate makes up 17% of the $19B U.S. chocolate market and industry experts expect year-over-year growth in the bean-to-bar sector specifically at 75-100% in the short/medium-term. The chocolate bar produced by Mast Brothers (Brooklyn, NY) in June of 2011 was the first-ever U.S. commercial chocolate bar made of 100% Belizean cacao, sourced from MMC.
Historically, Belize sold all its cacao to Kraft Foods through a non-profit farmer association. Despite the Fair Trade certification of the association, the presence of this monopoly disincentivized innovation in services or prices. As a result, the industry had been stagnant for over 20 years as farmers were discouraged because of low prices and rejections of their dry cacao due to poor quality. MMC, alternatively, is focused on using its centralized post-harvest processing to create meaningful market linkages to specialty chocolate makers using a Direct Trade model of quality-focused direct relationships. This allows for greater market segmentation to acknowledge Belize’s high-value cacao varietals, encourages constant improvement in post-harvest processing quality, and provides new market incentives for farmers to grow their production and quicken industry growth.
MMC drives catalytic growth in Belize’s rural communities by partnering with local NGOs, community-based organizations, government agencies, microlending organizations, and others to reduce inefficiencies and empower communities and others to “own” the industry as it grows. This builds meaningful, integrated support networks that help MMC develop more effectively and efficiently.
Emily created a preliminary stock option program for her team, with two non-founding non-director employees currently owners of a small percentage of MMC.
The concept of using high-value organic cacao production to drive sustainable development, as imagined and implemented by Emily and her team, holds immense potential for the Central American region. The unique ecology and varietals of cacao found in this region are special, especially when compared with the commodity-level production of cocoa in West Africa. MMC's model and the replicability of that model could open up a new sourcing direction for chocolate makers around the world interested in supporting smallholder farmers and sustainable development while insisting on exceptional quality.