Did you know chocolate grows on trees? Meet the cacao farmers behind ME to WE Chocolate.
By Wanda O’Brien
Photos by Karloso Fiallos
The yellow pod hanging on the branch catches the sunlight shining through the forest. It dangles off the tree, tempting. The uninformed wouldn’t know that inside the pod’s hard exterior is an inner treasure: the prized fruit of Ecuador—cacao Fino de Aroma—used to make some of the best chocolate in the world.
Renata Ortiz knows. With the national pride in her sights, Renata swings her machete down, breaking the stem from the branch. The pod thumps to the floor.
This is the first step in the process to create ME to WE Chocolate—a bar that ensures farmers a fair wage, supports sustainable cacao farms, and gives back to communities in Ecuador. Each flavour gives a different impact. Milk gives education, dark supports health, and dark + goldenberries goes to food—all making WE Villages sustainable development model come to life.
Renata, 29, slices open the football-shaped cacao pod, uses her hands to deftly scoop the fruit from its shell and tosses the sticky bundle in a bucket. This white fruit protects the inner beans—the treasure trove—that will soon be delivered to a processing plant, fermented and dried, before being turned into chocolate. (Now available on store shelves in Toronto and online to North America.)
Renata’s farm is in Chone, a cacao-growing community located in the coastal province of Esmeraldas in Ecuador, where family farms crowded with cacao trees shape the landscape.
Growing cacao is a way of life for farmers here, but access to a market and a fair price is not.
WE has worked in sustainable development in Ecuador since the late 90s, and saw farmers struggle to sell the essential ingredient in the world’s most-loved treat. WE’s chocolate journey began. The organization has developed a program to provide farmers with an everyday economic opportunity.
“My husband inherited this farm from his parents,” Renata says as her toddler son climbs onto her lap, demanding a cuddle. As Renata takes a break from cacao harvesting, her husband Jorge is two hours away, working their larger plot of land. “I came here nine years ago. That’s the first time I picked up a machete. I had never done that.”
Now, she’s part of a process to rejuvenate and celebrate Ecuador’s best kept secret.
Renata and her husband Jorge farm cacao Fino de Aroma; this coveted cacao from Ecuador is famous within chocolatier circles. The quality of the bean—its name was born due to its depth of flavours and varieties of aroma—makes a high-quality chocolate if the bean is processed and dried in a particular way to protect the floral, fruity, and nutty notes that makes it world renowned.
After harvesting the pods, Jorge will load sacks of the raw fruit onto the back of his motorcycle and drop them at a cacao-collection co-op. Jorge is a founding member of the co-op, a collection of farmers who came together in the pursuit of a fair price for their cacao.
In order for the farmer to be paid, the co-op needs access to chocolate buyers. And ideally, chocolate buyers who care about more than the economic bottom line. ME to WE is such a buyer.
ME to WE’s purchasing from the collection centre ensures a fair wage, honouring the work of farmers like Renata and Jorge by supporting sustainable cacao farms.
Farmers will see the benefit of ME to WE Chocolate in more ways than payment. Proceeds from these chocolate bars will go back to Ecuador to support community development projects through WE Villages—a process that sees impact go full circle.
As ME to WE Chocolate bars start to roll off a production line at a chocolate factory in Quito, six hours away, details are being finalized on the drawings for the new buildings needed at Renata’s kids’ school.
Renata is vice-president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, and knowing the cacao she farms enables her to provide for her sons, while also (literally) building them a better school causes her to pause and reflect.
“My sons will inherit this farm, and they will learn to work the field with a machete. But they won’t have to use the machete. Education will let them choose.”
Before leaving, we hand Renata a bar of ME to WE Chocolate—fresh off the conveyor belt, one of the first samples, all the way from Quito. “Your bean is in this bar,” we tell her. “Try it.”
Surprised a buyer brought the processed fruits of her labour back to where it all began, Renata tentatively opens the package, and peels back the blue wrapper. She takes a bite, smiles.
Later, when her husband returns from the field, she tells him she tasted the chocolate. He looks around for his piece. Renata admits there isn’t any left. Some things are too good to share.