From coca leaves to cocoa beans: How farmers in the Peruvian Amazon are innovating using digital tools
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From coca leaves to cocoa beans: How farmers in the Peruvian Amazon are innovating using digital toolsEstimated reading time: 4 minutes
“Quality is not an act. It’s a habit.” This sign greets Carlos Angulo Gonzáles as he walks into the premises of the Allima Cacao Cooperative. It perfectly captures the approach he and the members of the cooperative take to their work.
The Allima cooperative brings together 400 small-scale farming families in Chazuta, a district in the Peruvian Amazon. Most of them are Kichwa Indigenous Peoples and recently switched from cultivating coca leaves to cocoa beans, with support from the local government.
As the general manager of the cooperative, Carlos Angulo helps farmers produce, process and market cocoa beans, and connects them to technical assistance, especially around the fermentation, drying and marketing of the product.
When COVID-19 struck, restrictions on movement meant the members of the cooperative were unable to access the markets or vital technical assistance needed to improve their products.
This is when AGRIdigitalización was implemented by Agriterra as part of IFAD’s RPSF programme. The initiative helped small-scale farmers and their producer organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Peru find innovative ways to preserve their livelihoods during the pandemic.
AGRIdigitalización connects farmers to online services, many of these offered by small youth-led tech companies. Using these services, farmers and farmer collectives were able to connect to new markets and access technical assistance and financial services.
In the case of Allima, AGRIdigitalización linked them with a local e-commerce platform through which they sold beans and concentrated cocoa pulp online, keeping their business going during the pandemic. Collective members learned about internet sales platforms and trends in consumer behaviour.
Twenty-seven-year-old David Santos Huancas is one of the youngest workers at the cooperative. As the Product Traceability Manager, he uses online monitoring to follow the process by which cocoa beans are collected, tracked and sold. He immediately spotted the potential of the e-commerce training he received through AGRIDigitalización.
“This is very important for young people because we not only make profits, but we also create job opportunities for other young people and the children of the cooperative members,” says David. It has made it possible for the cooperative to not just survive the pandemic, but to flourish in an increasingly digital world.
New products with an ancient lineage
With incomes hit by the downturn that accompanied the pandemic, AGRIdigitalización also helped farmers innovate and develop high-value products like macambo.
Macambo is a rare and delicious relative of cocoa that is native to the Amazon regions of Peru and Colombia. Prior to colonization, it was commonly used to make a kind of chocolate. But when the Europeans arrived, they preferred cocoa and macambo fell out of favour.
But now, Allima’s members are developing innovative products, such as macho chocolate (half cocoa and half macambo) and macambo flour. They are now close to launching a new macambo product which incorporates a local edible ant that is rich in protein and iron. Using online services, they connect digitally to markets to sell these high-value products.
Today, Carlos Angulo uses electronic devices and digital platforms to offer products, make shipments and coordinate sales. “Had we not been part of AGRIDigitalización, our business would not be sustainable, and we would not be offering new products,” says Carlos Angulo. “The project awakened us to search for new markets and opportunities.”
Opportunities in a changing world
Climate change is posing a challenge to Allima’s commitment to quality. In 2022, it rained constantly in June, normally a rainless month during which cocoa beans are left to dry in the sun, causing several batches to degrade in quality.
But working together, and with online technical support, the cooperative found solutions. They developed innovative retractable drying trays, so that the beans could be quickly taken under shelter when it rained. They also adopted a circular economy approach, in which 100 per cent of the cocoa pod is now used to make products like honey and tea. “We must not only use the beans, which are 20 per cent of the whole pod, but also the shell, the pulp, and so on,” says Carlos Angulo.
The older farmers are also pleased with the opportunities offered by digital tools. Fifty-seven-year-old Gening Tapullima Chashnamote tends his cocoa grove an hour upriver of the cooperative headquarters. He’s eagerly learned about new market models and achieved the highest quality standards. “I feel very proud to share what I produce,” he says.
Innovating for the future
Innovation is as important to small-scale farmers and indigenous communities in the Amazon as it is to Silicon Valley tech giants. Using new tools effectively and finding fresh approaches to old ways of doing things, is critical for them to adapt to climate change impacts and earn better livelihoods while feeding the world quality food.Publication date: 16 February 2023