Stamping its identity on the chocolate market

RIO CARIBE, Venezuela — Luis Carvajal cracks open a cacao pod and offers one of its sticky white seeds to suck on.

“Can you taste how sweet it is?” he asked. “This is Venezuelan cacao. It’s the best in the world.”

Like many in this remote corner of northeastern Venezuela, Carvajal makes his living from cacao. His family has produced the raw ingredient for chocolate for more than 10 generations. Today, he guides visitors around the plantation belonging to Chocolates Paria, one of the few chocolate factories in this oil-producing country.

But despite sitting on an invaluable commodity, Venezuela has struggled to stamp its identity on the industry where the real money lies: chocolate.

“We need to change what's happened in the past which is that other countries take our cacao seeds, process them abroad and sell it here,” said Juana Francisca Rodriguez, a cacao specialist at the Ministry for Science, Technology and Medium-Sized Industries. “How much does a chocolate bar cost here? It's very expensive. It shouldn't be like that.”

In the 19th century, cacao was one of Venezuela’s main products. But with the discovery of oil in the early 20th century, like many other agricultural commodities, over the years it has dwindled in importance for Venezuelan governments.

Several stories exist about the origins of cacao but Venezuelans prefer the version that it originated in the area south of Lake Maracaibo and was distributed by pre-Columbian traders across Latin America up to Mexico where the Spanish conquistadors discovered it and took it back to Europe. There are three main types of cacao: The Forastero strain originated in the Amazon area of South America but can now be found in many parts of the world, including West Africa. It is known for its bitter taste and considered to lack the finesse of other types. It accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of worldwide production. Criollo (or native) cacao grows in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It is characterized by its powerful yet subtle aroma and makes up between 5 and 8 percent of global production. The Trinitario strand is a mixture of Forastero and Criollo and originated in Trinidad and Tobago.

All three types grow in Venezuela but it is the Criollo that is lauded at the top end of the chocolate industry. Award-winning Italian and French luxury chocolate makers such as Amadei and Valrhona all swear by it — and even fight over it: Amadei recently poached Valrhona's cacao supply in the central coastal village of Chuao.

But while Venezuela’s cacao is highly regarded all over the world, why does so little of the finished product — the chocolate — come from Venezuela?

“Almost all Venezuelan cacao is exported,” explained Alida Quintero, founder of Chocolates Paria, who says that, like with other private industries, the government gives few incentives for small producers to enter the export business.

“When we started producing chocolate here we were the crazy ones because we've always been cacao producers not chocolate producers. But we insisted and now we produce a chocolate that stands up — it's good quality.”

You don’t get much more homegrown than Chocolates Paria. Its factory near the town of Rio Caribe is a small outbuilding in a former hacienda that now acts as a museum. Surrounded by imposing bukare trees that shade the cacao shrubs from the tropical sun, the factory employs just 10 women to turn the cacao into organic chocolate.

Quintero’s company produces chocolate that’s “good for your health.” She claims the husk of the cacao seed contains theobromine-rich alkaloids that promote muscle growth and strengthen the heart. Natural chocolate is also believed to stimulate serotonin levels in the brain that help to alleviate depression.

Unlike many commercial producers, the company uses 100 percent cacao butter (commercial producers often substitute it for soya butter and sell the highly valued cacao butter to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry). Quintera claims using cacao butter makes her chocolate less fattening because it does not sit on the lining of the stomach.

But despite easy access to some of the finest raw ingredients, Quintero said her company cannot export — its product is sold only in Venezuela. A highly overvalued bolivar, which the government has fixed at 2.15 to the dollar for several years, makes their chocolate uncompetitive on the international market, she said.

One chocolate producer that does manage to export is Chocolates El Rey. Based in Barquisimeto, El Rey has a much larger operation and its chocolate bars are sold in the U.S., Canada, Japan, parts of Europe and much of Latin America.

The process, however, is not without its difficulties. Jorge Redmond, who bought the company in 1973, complains that the current government has created a bureaucratic minefield for exporters. “When [Hugo] Chavez arrived in power there were four steps that you had to do to export,” he said. “Today it’s 52 steps. Each container requires 52 official steps — permits, stamps, documents … it’s a problem, we’ve had to set up a department just to deal with those things.”

While the government shows little interest in assisting chocolate exporters it has made gains in upping exports of cacao, said Rodriguez.

A project labeled the “Chocolate Route” provides workshops, talks and free advice from specialist technicians for some 5,000 cacao producers. It has even developed a genetically modified strain of cacao that it claims can grow in half the time of traditional varieties.

The efforts appear to have borne fruit. Cacao production has risen steadily since socialist president Chavez took power 10 years ago. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Venezuelan cacao production jumped by 35 percent between 1999 and 2007. But Venezuelan cacao production is still meager by world standards (Cote D'Ivoire produced 1,384,000 metric tons in 2007, compared to Venezuela's 18,911 metric tons). Until recently, the emphasis in Venezuela had been on quality rather than quantity, said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said the government has made efforts to generate a home chocolate industry but that so far success has been minimal. It hopes to open up chocolate-making school in the future but a healthy chocolate industry is still a work in progress.

Redmond said his company actually nets a loss on exports which he subsidizes by profits made at home. But he sees the company’s future as an exporter and hopes conditions for exporting will improve at some point.

“We have a scheme at our company," Redmond said, "which is to transform Venezuelan primary materials at home, add value to it, so that we can compete with other producers in the world who come to the third world to buy their primary material and leave with much of the profit."