We're doing our best to contribute to positive change in the world of chocolate. This article is a summary of our efforts.
We discuss how we're paying the highest prices to farmers in the industry, going beyond certifications, building a technology platform for traceability of cacao and coffee, up-cycling byproducts, and protecting endangered varieties of cacao, among other initiatives.
It also bears mentioning that this entire project is a work in progress. Every month and every year, we try to improve what we’re doing and how we do it. Here's what we've done to date, and what we're working on.
Not just fair trade and direct trade, but participatory trade
Our cacao is Fair Trade certified, and we purchase it through Direct Trade...but there's more to it than that. We work hand-in-hand, literally, with a group of thirteen cacao farmers, which we've been doing since 2013. We physically participate in every single harvest day, we eat lunch in the forest together, we’ve slept in their homes. They are incredibly proud that they grow the cacao that goes into a bar of To'ak, which ultimately makes it way to far flung places like Harrods in London and other specialty stores throughout the world. It makes them feel like what they're doing has value.
We pay the highest price per pound for cacao beans
To'ak has been buying cacao from our farming partners in Piedra de Plata, via a direct trade model, every year since 2014. We pay farmers between 200% to 700% above the local farmgate price for wet cacao. The local price for a “quintal” (100 lbs) of wet cacao ranges averages about USD $25. To’ak pays $200 per quintal of first select beans and $100 per quintal of second select beans, and $75 per quintal for third select beans.
To’ak travels to the farmers’ collection center to collect and pay the farmers, keeping more money in the pocket of farmers. This price is not floating and is independent of the ICCO daily price for cacao beans.
Wet cacao vs dry cacao
It's also important to distinguish between the price of wet cacao beans vs dried cacao beans. Wet beans lose approximately two thirds of their weight once fermented and dried. The equivalent price that To'ak pays for dried beans (without even considering the cost of transportation, fermentation, drying etc.) is approximately $6,600 - $13,200 per metric tonne of dried cacao. We purchase over 500kg of cacao per year and plan to gradually increase this amount each year.
Calculation notes: price per 100 pounds multiplied by three to convert to dry weight, and then multiplied by 22 to convert from 100 pounds of dried cacao to one metric tonne of dried cacao.
Farmgate prices vs ICCO prices
Some people refer to the ICCO daily price for cacao beans when comparing prices. This is an industrialized-world-centric view, which is relevant to commodity traders or industrial chocolate makers who might sit in New York or Zurich. But this price usually has little relevancy for smallholder cacao farmers, who typically sell their cacao to traders who pay a local price. Numerous studies have shown that smallholder farmers are heavily disadvantaged by swings in market prices. They typically lose the most when prices drop and they gain the least when prices surge.
We prefer to reference a farmer-centric price when publishing our prices. To reach the ICCO price, the cacao typically passes through the hands of several traders, during which time it is often fermented, dried and sometimes roasted. ICCO prices are a more suitable reference point for farms like our good friends at Hacienda Victoria (who own their farm, produce a larger quantity of cacao for export, handle the post-harvest themselves and create local employment opportunities), or for industrial traders and chocolate makers.
Covering the financial and bureaucratic cost of maintaining certification
Since 2014, To'ak has paid the cost of the fair trade and organic certification for its farmers. We also manage the somewhat burdensome administration and compliance process. As part of the certification programs, To'ak delivers training to the farmers in organic farming methods and other quality processes.
Going beyond certification?
Together with two other like-minded brands, To'ak developed and launched a new digital supply chain traceability and storytelling platform called Orijin (https://orijin.io). Orijin is both a farm management and traceability tool that offers benefits for farmers and consumers. Farmers and cooperatives are now using Orijin to increase the productivity of their farms as well as securing higher prices for their cacao or coffee. Consumers are able to trace the origins of their final product, learn about the people who have grown and created the products they consume, understand each of the steps from bean to bar (or cup), and when/where/how it was transported at each stage.
We are proud to be contributing to the next era in sustainable food production. Don’t be surprised if you see us drop our certification programs completely once we are satisfied that Orijin offers more value to our customers and farmers, as compared to outdated, complex and expensive certification programs.
Paying attention to terroir and provenance pays dividends for farmers
We highlight the provenance (Piedra de Plata) of the cacao we use to make To'ak. Prior to To'ak identifying and certifying the cacao as Heirloom, the community was not known nationally or internationally, and its members sold their cacao as un-fermented bulk cacao to low-paying intermediaries.
As a direct result of our partnership, the community has experienced a dramatic change in how the country and the world values their cacao and its unique origin. Since being covered by several international TV documentaries and print publications, the community has received a fermentation and drying facility as well as a small chocolate-making laboratory. These were built at the farm collection center and paid for by international NGOs and local governments.
Working with local artisans
We source our wooden presentation and paper presentation boxes from local artisan in Quito. We trained them to create luxurious hand-crafted packaging. They then employ their team to create the stunning packaging, from sustainable timber and paper sources, that each bar of To'ak is presented in.
Our roots are in conservation
The spark that created To'ak occurred on a rainforest conservation project that our co-founder Jerry Toth created with a group of other conservationists. The Jama Coaque Reserve, which is managed by our nonprofit partner Third Millennium Alliance (TMA), protects one of the most endangered tropical forests in the world. This is where he started farming cacao and making chocolate. Read Jerry’s story How We Made a Rainforest Preserve, which today protects more than 1,700 acres of rainforest and endemic wildlife.
Protecting future flavor diversity and heirloom cacao
To'ak and TMA jointly established a genetic bank for 100% pure Ancient Nacional Cacao and other endangered heirloom cacao varieties. Read more about the Noah’s Ark of Ancient Nacional Cacao.
Prior to our conservation project there were only 15 DNA-verified pure Nacional trees identified in Ecuador. Today, in our Genetic Bank, we have over three hundred, which in the future will increase to several thousand. The ultimate goal of this project is to return this cultural patrimony to the cacao farmers of Ecuador who wish to work with ancestral cacao and receive a premium price for their harvest.
Responsible sourcing of ingredients
All of the cacao and the cane sugar we use is organic.* The wood used for our wooden boxes are sourced from regenerative timber farms. The paper we use is either recycled and/or chemical free and is FSC compliant.
*The cacao we source from Piedra de Plata is grown organically and certified organic. The cacao we source from the Galapagos Islands is grown organically but not yet certified.
Upcycling waste products to create healthy, functional beverages
Several years ago To'ak developed the world’s first all-natural cacao fruit soda using the sweet fleshy pulp of the cacao fruit, which is traditionally discarded in the chocolate-making process. This product was launched as a separate company under the brand "Xoca" in Chicago in 2019 (https://drinkxoca.com). Xoca buys cacao fruit from smallholder farmers and the farmers are now paid for something they previously threw away. You can find the drink on Amazon or purchase it directly from Xoca’s website.
We are always curious about what else can be achieved if we rethink unequal relationships and tired systems. Here are a few of the problems and potential solutions we're currently working on.
How the price of chocolate might reshape the value farmers receive
Cacao farmers throughout the world are underpaid and often exploited by a system that prioritizes mass-production of cheap chocolate. By raising the bar on chocolate prices, we believe we can help shift consumer and producer attitudes toward a system that recognizes the true cost of producing a fine food product in an ethical and sustainable manner.
Transferring skills and knowledge down the value chain rather than simply ‘nickel and diming’ farmers
We are currently seeking financial support to establish a project where we transfer our knowledge and skills in quality post-harvest and chocolate-making to the community of Piedra de Plata.
When we are successful in this process, we will analyze the possibility of forming a joint venture whereby the farmers harvest the cacao and manage the post-harvest and chocolate-making processes. To'ak's role in this partnership will be quality control, branding and packaging and the commercialization of the finished product. In this way we extend a truly authentic partnership that leverages our respective strengths, keeps value at the community level, and offers consumers something truly unique, ethical and sustainable.
A FINAL WORD
To’ak is proudly based in Ecuador—the native origin of cacao—and our roots are in rainforest conservation. Our business is about creating memorable experiences, connecting people to land, and promoting a healthy food and farming culture.
We do this by constantly pushing the boundaries of how cacao is sourced, produced, experienced, and valued in the world today. We are celebrated for our innovative cask-aged chocolate, and we have made it our job to be stewards of the rarest and most prized cacao variety on earth.