The cocoa farmer's competitive advantage

Last week, I spent an afternoon with a farmer I'll call Rodrigo. His background was atypical for cocoa producers in Huila; while he was born in the department, he moved at a young age with his family to Bogotá, where he lived an urban existence, went to university, and ultimately trained to be an agricultural technician.

Recently, he had returned to the house his grandmother had lived in, now in a bit of disrepair, but still lovely. Sheltered by tall trees, retreating slightly behind a large, breezy porch, it felt forgotten but sturdy. The front door opened into a dark living area decorated with a young man's sensibilities- a few pictures (some Colombian, one Japanese), no furniture, and two bikes propped against the wall.

Rodrigo was twenty-six. He'd applied everything he'd learned at university to revive his grandmother's farm, with a vigor that his neighbors eyed with suspicion and distrust, other technicians viewed with admiration and respect, and I saw as a fascination for cocoa that was both passionate and nerdy.

He kept meticulous records. Calendars with activities and applications of this and that dotted his back porch. He measured rainfall, temperature, and his recycling bins had been adorned with careful attention not nearly as present in his home. Before we entered his cocoa lots, he prepared a bin of bleach and water where we were to disinfect our boots, in a focused but relaxed manner that suggested he'd done it many times before.

He had a large dog and a mangy kitten. I made the assumption later on that the dog was for protection, after he explained his terrible relationships with his neighbors. Here, there's not a great feeling of community, he explained. When someone succeeds at something, he continued, people aren't happy for each other, they're resentful. He said he'd had neighbors break into his home. When I asked him if he felt safe, his answer was, yes and no. 

Rodrigo didn't just abide by the commonly shared "good agricultural practices" - although he did that, too. But he took his dedication to production more than a few steps further, spending most of his free time experimenting, trying things out, testing theories about his plants, lombricultura, and fermentation practices.

His preferred method of fermentation was to load his freshly harvested cocoa into what looked like a wooden spool, which he could close and rotate. It's a bit more expensive than dumping the cocoa in the more commonly used sweatboxes, he explained, but where the sweatboxes take seven days, the spool takes five. Then, he showed us a small sample of cocoa he was testing for alcohol development times.

While he was extremely committed to fostering a highly productive farm, he was a compromiser. He had balance sheets in his head about how much money local wildlife was costing him in cocoa. It's pure enjoyment to eat the fruit and spit out the pits, he explained. They're not living off of it, and I'm really only losing around 4,000 COP (about 1.40 USD). So who cares? I leave it.

He also told us that the comparatively dense forest on his farm was compromising his productivity slightly. I mean, look at it, he commented. It's practically a jungle. And it was- large, old trees towered over the cocoa plants, and sun shone through the leaves in stunning, delicate rays. But, Rodrigo said, there's no way to justify cutting them down.

We arrived at his lombricultura, and a giant grin or obvious pride spread over Rodrigo's face. He'd invested in a large, specialized tank, uncommon for cocoa producers. Beneath it emerged a hose, emptying natural fertilizer into a bucket sitting in a hole in the ground. I couldn't help but imagine his glee at the arrival of the tank; I'm almost sure he dropped everything to fiddle around with it for endless subsequent hours.

Rodrigo wanted to capacitate local farmers to become more efficient cocoa producers. But somehow, he wasn't always well received by his neighbors. When producers came to learn about good practices, he said, with notable frustration, that they almost never applied what they learned in their own farms. This was a common problem; it wasn't unique to Rodrigo. But in his case, this was likely partly because he was younger, and partly because he was different. The technicians I visited with called him "the extraterrestrial". 

But the disappointing results of capacity building sessions were telling. There's a lot of work to be done when it comes to how we communicate with farmers. We need to question our assumptions about why what we're doing isn't working. And innovation in cocoa production needs to become exciting; there need to be incentives.

Innovation is possible in cocoa farming, and it can be highly motivating. Rodrigo proudly shared that there were organizations interested in a specific tree on his farm, but that he didn't want to get involved with them just yet. He wanted to grow his own competitive advantage; he wanted to have something no one else had. 

He beamed as he looked at the tree. It was rather homely in my eyes, but he gazed upon it with a father's pride. And then he led us to his next experiment.