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Technology innovations look to change the cacao landscape in Colombia

Cacao fruit in Peru, similar to what is grown in nearby Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Cacao holds promise as a “peace crop” in Colombia, providing smallholders with a viable alternative to coca.
  • Two projects — EcoProMIS, led by Agricompas, and COLCO, led by Satellite Applications Catapult — are developing technology applications to build on cacao’s potential in Colombia and ensure transparency and traceability.
  • A combination of apps, smart devices and data analytics could help farmers produce more per hectare, refine their post-harvest process, and fetch fairer prices, all while improving transparency and traceability.
  • Boosting yields per hectare is an important goal for Colombia given that it has committed to ensuring zero deforestation in the cacao supply chain.

As Colombia searches for a way forward after a half-century of war, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) could have a significant role to play. Called the food of the gods, this squat tropical hardwood holds exceptional social and environmental promise in the intractable expanses of the country.

For starters, cacao can grow at many of the same altitudes as coca, the proscribed plant from which cocaine is extracted. Cacao’s price per pound makes it an ideal substitute in the far reaches of Colombia where transportation costs make most other crops unviable.

Unlike coca, which is harvested at the stem several times a year, cacao is a perennial tree that holds soil.

Cacao is also a smallholder crop par excellence, with the most exquisite chocolate coming from meticulously managed polyculture systems under a tropical canopy.

Today, Colombia has its eye on the premium markets that value such care and finesse: although ranked 10th among cacao-exporting nations by volume, 95% of the cacao it exports is classified as fine quality, and newly rediscovered varietals win international awards every year.

Cacao pods grow on trees in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Untapped potential and emerging key resources

But Colombia has yet to capitalize on most of cacao’s potential. Yields per hectare have hardly budged over the past few decades, to a large extent because cacao is a smallholder crop often grown in the hinterlands where education and extension services are hard to come by. Many cacao growers produce as little as 200 or 300 kilograms per hectare (about 180 to 270 pounds per acre), whereas its potential is for 2-4 metric tons per hectare (1,800 to 3,600 pounds per acre).

Experts estimate that 60% of production is lost to pests and disease due to a lack of information at the farm level, at a total cost of around $1 billion annually. Colombia’s exports amount to less than a third of those of Ecuador, its considerably smaller southern neighbor. But out in Colombia’s backwoods, a handful of tech companies believe they can turn those tables by leveraging satellite data, “internet of things” (IoT) applications, and made-to-measure apps.

One of these is Agricompas, an agricultural decision-support company whose platform, EcoProMIS, was developed to provide sustainability monitoring and decision support to Colombian farmers growing oil palm and rice.

“Now we are digitizing cacao, building a data analytics platform that creates knowledge for free for growers,” Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas, told Mongabay from the company offices in Oxford, U.K.

The business model is based on selling anonymized data to third parties such as traders and insurers for prediction and traceability. “Farmers have such limited means that they should invest the little fertilizer they have at the right moment. Information means you can optimize the means that you have,” Kramer said.

Cacao pods. Photograph courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

Smallholder leadership and cacao’s future

Field research conducted by Agricompas in partnership with the Colombian Federation of Cacao Growers (Fedecacao) and financed by the U.K.’s Prosperity Fund indicates that women may have a special role to play in the future of cacao in Colombia.

For one, the women in their initial sample of 48 cacao farmers from two different regions have better access to smartphones than men.

Women are also most involved at the harvest, post-harvest, and commercialization stages, which is where about 70% of cacao’s value is determined. EcoProMIS will continue to gather gender-disaggregated data to map changes in women’s standing in the cacao field as technology and quality gain relevance. “At Agricompas, we are keen to increase the participation and visibility of women in the cocoa value chain,” Deborah Foy, a consultant to Agricompas, wrote on the company’s blog.

There are other strategies at play, too.

A cacao farmer being interviewed for COLCO at his home in Santander, Colombia. The machine-readable concept sheet was designed as a prompt to gather farm data from all kinds of users, both literate and illiterate. Photograph courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

“We’re working to put cacao on a trajectory similar to coffee,” said Mark Jarman, who manages a different pilot project that he says has thus far reached 350 cacao farmers, referencing one of Colombia’s greatest agricultural success stories. Coffee, another smallholder crop that can grow on slopes, is Colombia’s principal export after fossil fuels, and the cultural landscape that has sprung up around it has been anointed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Jarman is head of agriculture at Satellite Applications Catapult, one of a suite of innovation centers financed by the U.K. government. Together with High Value Manufacturing Catapult, they are leading COLCO, which is both an alliance of independent companies from Colombia and the U.K. and a digital platform on which those allies are building apps to optimize the full breadth of the cacao supply chain in Colombia, from seed to sale.

“Everybody is gaining value,” Jarman told Mongabay. “But we’re actually all working for a common goal and vision, which is basically the smallholder. That’s how we support a sector transformation.”

Alexandra Aviles collecting cacao pods in her garden in the community of Llanchama. Photo by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.
Alexandra Aviles collecting cacao pods in her garden in the community of Llanchama, Ecuador. Photo by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

Tech-based environmental protections

Environmental protection is another of COLCO’s aims: if more cacao can be produced per hectare, then farmers’ incomes can be increased without them having to clear forests for more cropland.

In fact, in 2018 Colombia signed the Cocoa, Forests and Peace Initiative agreement committing it to zero deforestation in the cacao supply chain. If the country is to make good on that promise, it needs to find a way for smallholders to make more money from the land they already have.

One of the spokes in COLCO’s wheel is Plantwise, a plant clinic operator that has worked with more than 40 million smallholders worldwide. Plantwise uses a train-the-trainer methodology through which farmers become accredited plant doctors and a resource for their peers. The program is supported by an app on which farmers can access information on plant health and post pictures of their cacao trees to get crowdsourced advice.

WeatherSafe is another member of the COLCO family that combines processed satellite images, weather information, and farm data to deliver risk updates by text message on which farmers can take timely action.

Views from a cacao farm in Santander, Colombia. Photograph courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

“At the moment, they [are] getting advice every two weeks from an extension service,” Jarman said. “If you can do that on a daily basis, you’re exponentially increasing their ability to make a better decision.”

COLCO’s tech ecosystem also includes a 3D-printed smart column fitted with sensors that is inserted into the boxes in which cacao undergoes a weeklong fermentation process on its way to becoming chocolate.

Cacao fermentation happens either on the farms or at farming cooperatives nearby, far from urban centers. The process requires an almost mystical degree of sensitivity and is easy to botch, and yet this post-harvest management is what determines the larger part of the eventual chocolate bar’s flavor profile. It is also what sets Colombian cacao apart from the bigger exporters in Africa.

There is also COLCO’s smart tower, designed by The MTC and manufactured by the Colombian company Dextera. It monitors pH levels, temperature, and humidity, allowing farmers to optimize conditions during fermentation.

COLCO is also developing an app for the moment when cacao changes hands. Using computer vision, the app will objectively gauge quality based on color, size, and variation between cacao beans in a given sample. This innovation will even the informational playing field between farmers and traders, while also setting the foundations for total traceability and source vetting.

Initially financed by a grant from the U.K.’s Newton Fund for £1 million ($1.3 million) in 2018, COLCO was recently extended for another year to make up for delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds seem modest in comparison to the project’s ambition, but Catapult’s strategy of co-producing innovation rather than competing has allowed it to construct a proof-of-concept that could revolutionize the way cacao is grown, processed, and traded in Colombia.

“Sustainability happens in systems, not in isolation,” Jarman says.

Banner image: Cacao fruit in Peru, similar to what is grown in nearby Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

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