Technological innovations seek to change the cocoa landscape in Colombia

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  • Cocoa holds promise as a “culture of peace” in Colombia, offering smallholders a viable alternative to coca.
  • Two projects – EcoProMIS, led by Agricompas, and COLCO, led by Satellite Applications Catapult – are developing technological applications to harness the potential of cocoa in Colombia and ensure transparency and traceability.
  • A combination of apps, smart devices and data analytics could help farmers produce more per hectare, refine their post-harvest process and get fairer prices, while improving transparency and traceability.
  • Increasing yields per hectare is an important goal for Colombia as it is committed to ensuring zero deforestation in the cocoa supply chain.

As Colombia seeks a way forward after half a century of war, the cocoa tree (Theobroma cocoa) could have an important role to play. Called the food of the gods, this chunky tropical hardwood carries exceptional social and environmental promise in the inextricable expanses of the country.

For starters, cocoa can grow at many of the same elevations as coca, the banned plant from which cocaine is extracted. The price of cocoa per pound makes it an ideal substitute in the far reaches of Colombia where transportation costs make most other crops unsustainable.

Unlike coca, which is harvested from the stalk several times a year, cocoa is a perennial tree that holds the soil.

Cocoa is also a quintessential family crop, with the most exquisite chocolate coming from meticulously managed polyculture systems under a tropical canopy.

Today, Colombia is eyeing high-end markets that value so much care and finesse: although ranked 10th among cocoa exporting countries by volume, 95% of the cocoa it exports is classified as fine quality, and the newly rediscovered grape varieties are winning international rewards every year.

Cocoa pods grow on trees in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Untapped potential and emerging key resources

But Colombia has yet to capitalize on most of the cocoa potential. Yields per hectare have hardly changed over the past decades, largely because cocoa is a smallholder crop often grown in the hinterland where education and extension services are difficult to access. find. Many cocoa farmers produce as little as 200 or 300 kilograms per hectare (about 180 to 270 pounds per acre), while its potential is 2 to 4 tonnes per hectare (1,800 to 3,600 pounds per acre).

Experts estimate that 60% of production is lost to pests and diseases due to a lack of information at the farm level, at a total cost of around $ 1 billion per year. Colombia’s exports are less than a third of those of Ecuador, its considerably smaller southern neighbor. But in the Colombian hinterland, a handful of tech companies believe they can turn the tide by leveraging satellite data, Internet of Things (IoT) and bespoke applications.

One of them is Agricompas, an agricultural decision support company whose platform, EcoProMIS, was developed to provide sustainability monitoring and decision support to Colombian farmers growing oil palm and rice.

“Now we are digitizing cocoa, building a data analytics platform that creates knowledge for free for producers,” Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas, told Mongabay from the company’s offices in Oxford, UK. UK.

The business model is based on the sale of anonymized data to third parties such as traders and insurers for the purposes of prediction and traceability. “Farmers have such limited means that they should invest what little fertilizer they have at the right time. Information means you can make the most of the means at your disposal, ”Kramer said.

Cocoa pods. Photo courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

Smallholder leadership and the future of cocoa

Field research conducted by Agricompas in partnership with the Colombian Federation of Cocoa Producers (Fedecacao) and funded by the UK Prosperity Fund indicates that women may have a special role to play in the future of cocoa in Colombia.

On the one hand, women in their initial sample of 48 cocoa farmers from two different regions have better access to smartphones than men.

Women are also most involved in the harvest, post-harvest and marketing stages, where around 70% of the value of cocoa is determined. EcoProMIS will continue to collect sex-disaggregated data to map changes in the position of women in cocoa as technology and quality gain in relevance. “At Agricompas, we want to increase the participation and visibility of women in the cocoa value chain,” wrote Deborah Foy, Agricompas consultant, on the company’s blog.

There are also other strategies involved.

A cocoa farmer interviewed for COLCO at his home in Santander, Colombia. The machine-readable concept sheet was designed as a prompt to collect agricultural data from all kinds of users, be they literate or illiterate. Photo courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

“We are working to put cocoa on a similar trajectory to coffee,” said Mark Jarman, who runs another pilot project which he says has so far reached 350 cocoa farmers, referring to one of the greatest agricultural successes in Colombia. Coffee, another small-scale crop that can grow on the slopes, is Colombia’s main export after fossil fuels, and the cultural landscape that has developed around it has been anointed a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Jarman is responsible for agriculture at Catapult of satellite applications, one of the UK government funded innovation centers. Together with High added value manufacturing catapult, they lead COLCO, which is both an alliance of independent companies from Colombia and the United Kingdom and a digital platform on which these allies create applications to optimize the entire cocoa supply chain in Colombia, from the seed for sale.

“Everyone wins in value,” Jarman told Mongabay. “But we’re all actually working for a common goal and vision, which is essentially the smallholder. This is how we support a sector transformation.

Alexandra Aviles picking up cocoa pods in her garden in the community of Llanchama.  Photo by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.
Alexandra Aviles picking up cocoa pods in her garden in the community of Llanchama, Ecuador. Photo by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

Technology-based environmental protection

Protecting the environment is another goal of COLCO: if more cocoa can be produced per hectare, farmers’ incomes can be increased without them having to clear forests for more cultivated land.

Indeed, in 2018, Colombia signed the Cocoa, Forests and Peace Initiative agreement committing it to zero deforestation in the cocoa supply chain. If the country is to keep its promise, it must find a way for smallholders to make more money from the land they already own.

One of the spokes of the COLCO wheel is At plant level, a plant clinic operator who has worked with over 40 million smallholders around the world. Plantwise uses a train-the-trainer methodology whereby farmers become accredited plant physicians and a resource for their peers. The program is supported by an app where farmers can access plant health information and post photos of their cocoa trees for crowdsourcing advice.

WeatherSafe is another member of the COLCO family that combines processed satellite imagery, weather information and agricultural data to provide SMS risk updates that farmers can take timely action on.

Views of a cocoa farm in Santander, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Satellite Applications Catapult.

“At the moment, they [are] get advice every two weeks from an extension service, ”Jarman said. “If you can do it on a daily basis, you exponentially increase their ability to make a better decision. “

COLCO’s technology ecosystem also includes an intelligent 3D printed column equipped with sensors that is inserted into the boxes in which the cocoa undergoes a fermentation process for a week before turning into chocolate.

Fermentation of cocoa takes place either on farms or in neighboring agricultural cooperatives, far from urban centers. The process requires an almost mystical degree of sensitivity and is easy to miss, and yet this post-harvest management is what determines most of the flavor profile of the final chocolate bar. This is also what distinguishes Colombian cocoa from the biggest African exporters.

There is also the COLCO smart tower, designed by MTC and manufactured by the Colombian company Dextera. It monitors pH, temperature and humidity levels, allowing farmers to optimize conditions during fermentation.

COLCO is also developing an app for when cocoa changes hands. Using computer vision, the app will objectively assess quality based on color, size, and variation between cocoa beans in a given sample. This innovation will even create the informational playing field between farmers and traders, while laying the foundations for full traceability and source control.

Originally funded by a grant from the UK Newton Fund for £ 1million ($ 1.3million) in 2018, COLCO was recently extended for one year to compensate for delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds seem modest compared to the ambition of the project, but Catapult’s strategy of co-producing innovation rather than competing has allowed it to build a proof of concept that could revolutionize the way cocoa is grown, processed and marketed. in Colombia.

“Sustainability happens in systems, not in isolation,” says Jarman.

Banner image: Cocoa fruit in Peru, similar to what is grown in neighboring Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.


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