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Going gaga over PH cocoa

Seed Core sends Mindanao cacao beans to the world

Roberto Crisostomo at Tiger Craft, which doubles as a chocolate crafts store —NELSON MATAWARAN

Social entrepreneur Roberto Crisostomo is making a bid to make local cacao beans globally competitive.

His company, Seed Core, sources cacao beans from farming communities in Mindanao, sells raw beans to Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest supplier of chocolate, and to chocolate industrial grinders that make cocoa butter and powder.

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Then again, the surge in the demand for Philippine craft chocolate has spurred the increase in the volume of local cocoa beans and the growth of customized processing.

Crisostomo himself established a separate business, Tiger Craft at Mandala Park in Mandaluyong, which focuses on business-to-business marketing, producing chocolate bases according to the specifications of corporate clients and chocolatiers.

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“We want Tiger Craft to be a manufacturing outfit or a chocolate processing laboratory,” he says.

He started customizing chocolate formulas using local beans for prominent chefs such as Margarita Forés for Cibo, Chele Gonzalez for Gallery Vask and Jordy Navarra for Toyo Eatery.

His company also makes special orders for Wholesome Table restaurant and deluxe hotels such as Raffles-Fairmont and Shangri-La hotels.

By the last quarter, Crisostomo plans to open Tiger Craft to the public.

The retail of his chocolates started out as Tigra Y Oliva, a brand of bean-to-bar chocolate, developed by an Italian chocolatier, Simone Mastrota. The expat began with a production lab in the surfing destination, San Juan, La Union. Eventually, the lab was converted into a modest shop, also called Tigra Y Oliva, selling chocolates, macaroons, cookies and ice cream made from local cacao beans.

“Tigra Y Oliva is the trial retail. It shows customers the various uses of chocolate from beverages to confections. We are feeling the market in the La Union shop before we venture into retail in Manila,” Crisostomo says.

Giving hope

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Crisostomo differentiates his businesses by also focusing on the social conscience aspect—providing healthier chocolates and livelihood to farmers.

“Our business was founded on a social initiative. We work with the chocolatiers and develop the taste profiles of the chocolate using the beans of our partner communities. These farmers would like to be linked with certain chocolatiers to keep the consistency and flavor of their products. Although many chocolate companies import their chocolates, the traceability of their origins is missing. Our vision is to show traceability. Our customers must know where the beans come from and how they are roasted,” he says.

Crisostomo ventured into cacao trading when a customer asking for cacao sources went to Ritual, a holistic general store operated by him and his wife, Bea. Ritual offers products from organic farmers and other social enterprises. He then began his research.

In 2011, Crisostomo joined the British Council social enterprise competition. He submitted a proposal to plant cacao trees in deforested areas in the Philippines and won a grant. He likewise received the Starbucks Shared Planet Award. Both grants helped him start his project of providing seedlings to farmers in Ilocos, and Mindanao. LBC Foundation funded the tree planting for three years.

“The challenge was finding buyers. What if you give these farmers hope that there is a growing global market? Who would do ground work—making sure the quality of beans is correct?” he says.

Post-‘Yolanda’ rehab

Crisostomo then flew to Barry Callebaut Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and explained his cause. The company sent experts to teach Filipino technicians and farmers the proper method of harvesting cacao from the trees, processing and fermenting.

Partners financed the trading and donors funded seedlings to be disbursed to farmers.

Through the years, Seed Core has distributed seedlings to farmers in Eastern Samar, Davao, Saranggani and Bukidnon. The cycle takes as long
as five years from planting to harvest.

One of Seed Core’s projects is in Samar, funded by People In Need, a European nongovernmental organization. “Our goal is to distribute 300,000 seedlings to 1,000 farmers and train them as part of the post-“Yolanda” rehabilitation. That’s why we have built a separate chocolate business so that when farmers harvest cacao beans, there is a good Filipino brand that supports them. We want to link the farmers to markets and export the beans,” Crisostomo says.

He estimates that Seed Core’s consolidated farming communities produce as much as 1,000 tons of cacao beans a year. Ninety percent is produced in Mindanao.

Fastest growing market

“We have been planting various cacao profiles because of the growing number of chocolatiers. We have established a market that is willing to pay a higher price,” he says.

Cacao costs around $2,400 a ton and $3,000 a ton for specialty cacao. As of March, the global price is $2.20 a kilo. Crisostomo buys cacao from Filipino farmers at higher rates of $2.30 to $2.90 (P120 to P150) a kilo, depending on the prevailing global price.

“We give better prices when we are able to market our products at a premium due to quality,” Crisostomo says. “Quality begins with the growers. A good crop, processed properly and formulated with good ingredients, becomes a quality product.”

His vision is to produce a significant supply of organic cacao beans. Although farmers in Mindanao have grown accustomed to industrial fertilizers, Crisostomo encourages them to use natural fertilizers and pesticides unless major pests invade the crops.

“Chemical pesticides can be avoided with culture practices—correct pruning of trees, harvesting at the right time, tidying up the farm and clearing the soil. We were lucky that Barry Callebaut sent an agriculture consultant, a Malaysian Indian, who did it for 30 years. If these farmers perform well, they will earn more money, which means better quality cacao. In turn, the output will move upstream to the manufacturer.”

The challenge is to maintain the relationship with the farmers and continue developing the market.

To help meet these challenges, Seed Core is supporting a program that helps farmers until the seedlings have grown into productive trees.

“This is the most delicate period of support. If the trees die, they lose hope,” Crisostomo observes.

But those who have persevered are already feeling the benefits.

“Our suppliers, who used to live in nipa houses, have moved to cemented homes. Some have bought a tricycle for extra income. When the neighbors see the success, they want to be involved and ask for seedlings,” he says.

There is still room for growth, not just in the country but in the region.

Crisostomo notes that Asia is the world’s fastest growing market for chocolate.

“There’s potential for both farmers and chocolate companies and processors,” he says. —CONTRIBUTED

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TAGS: cacao beans, Roberto Crisostomo, Seed Core, Tiger Craft
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