Fifty-five-year-old Alfonso Tapia smiles softly, his face partly shaded from the hot sun by the brim of his hat. He’s holding a large bar of chocolate. The front of the bar reads “El Castillero.”
“El Castillero” is a bar crafted with cacao beans from the biological natural reserve Indio Maíz, a pristine rainforest situated in the southeastern corner of Nicaragua, bordering the San Juan River and Costa Rica.
On the other side of the world, a conveyor belt in a Mikkel Friis-Holm Ottosen factory moves slowly, laden with chocolate bars destined for the stores of Denmark and beyond. They read “Don Alfonso” – the name of the man who supplied the cacao for both of these delicious bars of dark chocolate.
Alfonso Tapia – or “Don Alfonso” as his friends know him – is president of the Cooperativa de Desarrollo Multisectorial Productivo del San Juan (COODEPROSA), an organization that supports cocoa producers in the municipality of El Castillo, Río San Juan, Nicaragua.
When Alfonso dedicated himself to the production of cocoa a few years ago, he never imagined that a European-made chocolate would come from his own cooperative, bearing his own name, a name he is deeply proud of.
He also never imagined the challenges that lay ahead.
A Path to the Global Stage of Chocolate Through Agriculture
In El Castillo, the main economic activity is agriculture, and Nicaraguan cocoa is often an international benchmark for quality and aroma.
But Don Alfonso’s COODEPROSA cooperative lacked knowledge about good cocoa cultivation and quality control, including:
- Establishing plantations
- Pest control
- Harvesting techniques
- Post-harvest preservation
“It was very difficult to market our cocoa,” recalls Don Alfonso. “We tried to sell it in the local market, and many times nobody bought it.”
In 2019, Don Alfonso and the other cooperative farmers joined MOCCA, a five-year initiative, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and led by TechnoServe.
In Nicaragua, 3,500 cocoa producers are undergoing training to improve their profitability and productivity, strengthen their knowledge of good agricultural practices, improve the quality of their beans, and connect them with buyers of high quality cocoa, including several in key European markets.
And the training quickly paid off. It didn’t take long for the Danish company Mikkel Friis-Holm Ottosen to launch the “Chocolate Don Alfonso” line of chocolate bars manufactured with cocoa from his farm.
“An important point has been the technical training, which allowed me to develop [myself] and take away my fear of speaking with other producers,” Don Alfonso says of his success.
The work with TechnoServe and LWR and the increased income allowed Don Alfonso to diversify his farm with other things such as fruit trees and improved pastures. He also purchased new equipment for the handling of cocoa cultivation and made improvements to the house located on the farm.
The international products and prizes from national cocoa competitions have increased the international recognition of the cocoa produced in El Castillo, and now more chocolate companies in Europe are interested in buying from the cooperative.
The cooperative also has a small artisan chocolate factory that tourists often visit, which employs other members of the community as a way of supporting their families.
“I always share what I have learned with other producers,” says Don Alfonso. “I have tripled my cocoa production, and I expect to grow up to 40% next year.”
“Now I have a higher income, and that allows my family to access a better quality of life. My goal is to continue growing with the cooperative to support other producers, generate employment, and promote development in my community.”
But all of that was about to be jeopardized.
Climate Challenges Test Don Alfonso’s Chocolate Resilience
In mid-September, the situation in El Castillo turned deadly. Disastrous floods swept through the area, and Alfonso Tapia lost most of the items in his home.
The cocoa farms were hit hard by the flooding and strong winds. While many cocoa plants were damaged, Don Alfonso is also concerned about the proliferation of crop diseases such as monilia and alkaptonuria, also known as black ear.
Unfortunately, the floods were part of worsening weather conditions in recent years, due to climate change. Last November, the country was also hit by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, the latter being the strongest November hurricane on record. They displaced tens of thousands of people across Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
According to the UN, Nicaragua is likely to see more of these adverse weather events like those that hit El Castillo, which are likely to “directly affect poverty levels, food security, jobs, economy, social structure and the overall development of the country.”
For the estimated 95% of Nicaraguan cocoa producers who are small-scale farmers, climate change poses serious threats to their production, including:
- Bean fermentation and drying, which are negatively affected by droughts, floods, and excess rain
- Disrupted transportation in rural areas due to floods and landslides
- Uncertainty from local and international buyers following extreme weather events
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the combined economic and environmental challenges have been even more difficult to address.
Chocolate Training Helps Against Climate Change
Thankfully, Don Alfonso has been participating in the TechnoServe training. But these floods highlight an increasingly urgent need for climate-related assistance and training for cocoa farmers.
TechnoServe and LWR training in Nicaragua focuses on the skills and knowledge needed for rehabilitating cocoa plants, which may be needed now more than ever, while supporting access to high-quality supplies and finance with long-term sustainability as a key goal.
As he works to rehabilitate his plants and home, he’s focused on getting through these challenges and supporting his daughter, who is studying for a career in management in Managua, as she moves forward in her career.
“I want her to be promoted,” he says.
And so Don Alfonso isn’t giving up on his dream to sell the best cocoa, grow the cooperative, and win recognition on the global stage.
You can support environmental sustainability and help smallholder farmers like Don Alfonso become more resilient to climate change: