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Cocoa Offers New Hope for Nicaraguan Farmers

It’s a long way from the poverty and devastation of civil war to prosperity. In Nicaragua, TechnoServe has helped a farming cooperative make that journey by harnessing the potential of undervalued crops.

The Jorge Salazar Cooperative, located in the northern municipality of El Tuma-La Dalia, is a collective of 46 farmers – mostly veterans of Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s, which devastated the country’s economy. In an effort to incorporate ex-guerillas back into civilian society, TechnoServe – with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development – works to help farmer groups diversify their crops, develop markets, establish links to financing and improve organization, administration and marketing.

The Jorge Salazar Cooperative’s farmers faced a crisis when the price of coffee slumped in the early 2000s. At the same time, the value of malanga – a root crop that grows in puddles and swamps – rose as the tuber found a place in American kitchens.

In partnership with various organizations, TechnoServe helped the cooperative to increase its yields and harness the burgeoning popularity of malanga, connecting Jorge Salazar’s farmers to new markets in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The farmers also forged ties with a Guatemalan company that uses the cooperative’s malanga to make snack chips for sale in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Jorge Salazar boosts the income of its member and benefits 700 unaffiliated producers by buying their malanga at prices higher than those of competitors. A processing plant built in 2006 has created 80 jobs, primarily for women, where few employment opportunities existed before. Throughout its journey, the Jorge Salazar Cooperative has continued to reinvest in its community. The cooperative built a pharmacy that sells medicine at a 40-percent discount to area residents and helps support local schools and police.

“The economic improvement we have seen in our families and in our community over the past few years has been invaluable,” says Pablo Montenegro, president of the Jorge Salazar Cooperative and a former guerilla leader who was able to build a new house after earning a higher income producing malanga. “This has only been possible with the support of TechnoServe, which is helping us change our lives.”

Now, the Jorge Salazar Cooperative is poised to realize the benefits of another burgeoning crop: cocoa beans from the native criollo tree. The criollo bean’s exceptional aroma, flavor and quality are prized by gourmet chocolate makers, and fine cocoa typically commands a price anywhere from two to five times higher than conventional cocoa. Yet Nicaragua exports fewer than 1,000 tons of cocoa a year, almost none of it fine cocoa.

In 2006, TechnoServe began assisting 80 small-scale farmers to capitalize on the business opportunity presented by criollo cocoa. These farmers have planted about 100,000 native cocoa trees and resumed production on cocoa trees that had been abandoned. In coming months, TechnoServe will help farmers install two cocoa wet mills to improve the quality of their cocoa. Chocolate makers such as Domori and Ritter Sport have already expressed interest in the high-quality cocoa.

By 2013, TechnoServe expects farmers in the program to export about 70 tons, or $200,000 worth of cocoa. The long-term vision is to help as many as 25,000 farmers participate in the industry. And by planting or preserving more than 300 acres of trees, the program is helping to preserve Nicaragua’s rich biodiversity.

The budding cocoa farmers include Mercedes Valle, a member of the Jorge Salazar Cooperative’s board of directors who planted two-and-a-half acres of criollo cocoa in 2006. Mercedes, a malanga producer, expects to begin exporting cocoa next year.

“These cocoa trees were almost lost,” Mercedes says, “but thanks to TechnoServe we discovered that these plants have an important value because they can help us improve our incomes.”