In 2012, a group of second-year EARTH University students planned to convert a parcel of campus land into a productive organic cacao operation. In the midst of their entrepreneurial project, the team recognized that every year more students were arriving from Africa – the globe’s chief cacao-producing continent – as well as from other cacao-growing nations, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica. The cultivation of this much-beloved “food of the gods” presented a golden opportunity for the University and Costa Rica’s Atlantic region.
The inaugural cacao harvest was in 2014. The student team took responsibility for improving the fruit-drying and fermenting process. “It’s at this point that the magic happens, when the tasty aromas and flavors are generated,” says Arnoldo Avila, manager of EARTH’s Organic Farm. Once the cacao liquor was generated, it was sent to EARTH’s Food-Processing Lab. Ivannia Sanchez, the lab’s manager, collaborated with fourth-year students as they tested different flavors. After much experimentation, they successfully produced small-batch chocolates with unique tastes and native ingredients.
Last year, Sanchez challenged a new set of students to think outside the box, evaluate different textures and flavors, and tell a rich story through chocolate. They toiled for weeks in the university’s current cacao lab – a small space built from half a shipping container – until they came out with five varieties of chocolate: bacon, chai, starfruit, peanut, and chipotle. With the help of EARTH’s Marketing&Communication team, they devised a logo for the chocolates, as well as a bulk-sale system. For now, the chocolates are sold only at EARTH’s Guácimo Campus.
ASHA’s vital cacao-ntribution
Last year, USAID’s American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) program approved the budget for the construction of a new chocolate-processing plant and the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment. According to Sanchez, USAID/ASHA’s contribution could increase weekly production 20-fold: from 24 kilos to 500 kilos. The new plant will also boast educational opportunities for students to learn about the entire cacao-production chain, from planting and harvesting to processing and marketing.
Additionally, EARTH Futures plans to use the plant as a training center for local producers from Plataforma Cacao Caribe and Latin America as a whole. They share the vision of spearheading fair-trade commerce between cooperatives and small-scale cacao farmers. Thanks to USAID/ASHA, EARTH’s chocolate-processing plant will improve the education of students as well as the livelihoods of rural farming communities.