How Maya Mountain Cacao has Altered the Cacao Industry in Belize

In January, 2014, I was doing some research on chocolate, one of my favorite topics. Not to mention one of my favorite foods as well!

I volunteer at an organic farm every summer which has peaked my interest in agriculture, understanding where our food comes from and how our food is actually grown.  So, when you think about chocolate, do you know where it comes from?

Where does Chocolate Come From?

Chocolate is made from a plant (actually a tree) called cacao. The cacao tree thrives in areas that are 20 degrees north and south of the equator. They do not grow in rows like a traditional farm that many of us are familiar with. Cacao trees usually grow below altitudes of 1,000 feet in areas that receive about 4 inches of rain per month. They cannot survive in very dry weather and thrive in climates with high humidity and rainfall. These plants are shade-tolerant and thrive in moist, nutrient-rich, well-drained, deep soils.

The cacao tree produces cacao pods which are considered the fruit of the tree. The pods contain a milky, fleshy white, sugary pulp that surrounds 20-60 cacao beans. When harvested, the cacao pods are broken open with a machete. The milky substance and beans are bundled and are either dried locally or sent to a fermentation facility where they are fermented and dried. The white, milky pulp is sometimes used to produce a chocolate drink or wine. After fermentation and drying, the cacao beans are shipped locally or abroad to make chocolate.

Traveling to Punta Gorda, Belize to Learn About Chocolate

Traveling to Punta Gorda, Belize

When doing some personal research on cacao, I came across a trip to Punta Gorda, Belize that was being hosted by a bean to bar chocolate company in San Francisco called Dandelion Chocolate. A month later, I was on a puddle jumper from Belize City to Punta Gorda, Belize, where the trip commenced and was ready to learn about the cacao industry in Belize.

The trip itinerary was focused on learning about chocolate making, from the growing of the cacao plant to the production of the chocolate bar. The itinerary included:

  • A tour of Eladio’s Farm, an agrofarm owned and managed by a local Belizian farmer. The farm was more like a forest with cacao, pineapple, coconut, mango and all sorts of produce growing wild. For someone just visiting, it was difficult to understand why there was a cacao tree here and a pineapple plant there. However, Eladio explained that every plant and tree is growing in a specific location to support and protect the entire agrofarm. Check out the video below that takes you on a tour of Eladio’s agrofarm.
  • Making chocolate with a Metate at Ixcacao, a small family-run business since 1985 where they produce Maya Belizean chocolate.  We learned how Belizean families used the historic metate tool to create a chocolate paste from the cacao beans. We had an opportunity to taste the Ixcacao chocolate and shared a delicious Belizean lunch.
  • A visit to the Hummingbird Hershey, a 400-acre farm established many years ago by the Hershey Company, later abandoned and re-vitalized by Maya Mountain Cacao. Via tractor, we toured the 400-acres of cacao. Maya Mountain had just begun cleanup and pruning efforts to revitalize the trees and jumpstart the farm operation.
  • A visit to the Belcampo gardens, hotel, cacao plants and chocolate making facility. Belcampo Belize is dedicated to developing lasting economic stability in Southern Belize through agriculture. Sugar Cane, Cacao and Coffee are being grown organically by local people who are paid fair wages, fed healthy meals, and treated with fairness and respect.
  • Visit and tour of Maya Mountain Cacao, led by an inspiring woman and social entrepreneur named Emily Stone, who presented the story about Maya Mountain’s impact on the cacao industry in Belize. The Maya Mountain Cacao story and the leadership of Emily Stone has had a tremendous impact on the Belizean cacao industry.

“Alex Whitmore and Jeff Pzena, two chocolate makers from the U.S., visited Belize in 2010 in search of cacao. What they found was a large number of Maya smallholder cacao farmers with excellent cacao, but poor market access to sell their production. Alex and Jeff sought to change that by introducing a cacao processing and exporting operation to create better quality and market access for the farmers, and to secure a great supply of premium, organic cacao from Belize by creating Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd. Jeff brought his years of experience in local Belizean businesses, and Alex his depth of knowledge in cocoa sourcing and centralized cocoa fermentation and drying as the founder of Taza Chocolate.

Alex and Jeff both ran their own businesses full-time in the U.S. and knew they couldn’t develop and run this operation on their own. Serendipitously, Emily Stone, a young and ambitious activist from Boston, MA, frustrated by corporate over-reliance on low-impact certifications and seeking adventure in Central America, ended up in the Taza Chocolate factory.

She decided to join the team and move to Belize to launch and grow Maya Mountain Cacao. During her first week in Belize, she met Gabriel Pop, a young cacao farmer with big dreams for the local cacao industry. Together, Emily and Gabriel and their growing team built what is now the largest cacao exporter in Belize and a highly-recognized innovative source for high-quality, smallholder-grown fermented and dried cacao beans. Through further investment from Emily, Alex, and Taza Chocolate, and by the hard work of Gabriel, Emily, and their team, Maya Mountain Cacao has grown from being a small, fledgling cacao exporter, to being a brand recognized across the industry as a model for developing the specialty cocoa sector. Today, Maya Mountain Cacao is now just one of a family of companies in the Uncommon Cocoa Group, whose mission is to create a sustainable, prosperous cacao industry in which farmers, chocolate makers, and the environment thrive together.” (documented from the Uncommon Cocoa Group brochure)

Maya Mountain Cacao sources cacao from Belizean farmers and sells the cacao to makers of fine chocolate products in the US and other countries. Their model creates an exceptionally high-quality cacao bean and a growing source of income for farmers. Maya Mountain also works with farmers to teach organic, sustainable growing and harvesting techniques and, through a partnership with Kiva, offers micro-loans to help them finance equipment and training.

Emily Stone saw the impact potential of creating another cacao buyer in a region with significant poverty and was pivotal in altering the cacao industry in Belize. Emily’s role has expanded and she is now the Guatemala-based co-founder and CEO of Maya Mountain Cacao (Belize), Cacao Verapaz (Guatemala), and the Uncommon Cocoa Group.

My chocolate experience in Belize was filled with tons of inspiration and education. It’s definitely worth a visit if you love chocolate!!  Check out the video from Belize!