Issue 2: Community Scale Economics
Chocolate has long been considered an alluring and mystical food. Its complex flavor is world renowned, but few chocolate lovers stop to consider how it is made. The technology of chocolate production is a first-world commodity even though the essential ingredient, cocoa, is produced only in the so-called developing world. In the equatorial tropics, where cocoa beans are grown, big processing and distribution companies buy the cocoa crops at exploitative prices from economically cornered farmers and sell it on the world market.
Chocolate was first eaten by Europeans in the 1820s. Early chocolate companies developed the technologies of cocoa butter pressing, the separation of the fat and the solids, and chocolate refining to produce a rich, smooth product. These technologies advanced over the years and were generally guarded by a handful of entrepreneurs, the descendants of whom still control the now billion-dollar chocolate industry.
For some time I’ve been involved in appropriate technology work in the tiny Caribbean island country, Grenada, off the coast of Venezuela. Grenada has economic problems typical of all Caribbean countries. Cash crop agriculture is the predominant industry and the main exports - nutmeg, bananas, and cocoa - are grown in what is referred to as the “plantocracy” system in which a tiny percentage of the population owns all the productive land. Small plots are rented to the farmers, who barely make ends meet, and the crops are exported by large organizations.
Since the Grenadian people buy imported chocolate from the United States and Europe while exporting their fine-quality cocoa beans to the same places, it occurred to me that the introduction of chocolate-making technology in Grenada would be a good approach to reversing this trend. Two years ago I began research, including visiting U.S. factories. It became clear that the available equipment for manufacturing quality eating chocolate, although not impossibly complicated, is scaled for huge companies, making production prohibitively expensive for developing countries.
Last year, two friends and I set out to custom build a set of small-scale chocolate making machines with the goal of starting a small cooperative chocolate company in Grenada. By producing chocolate locally for the tourist and export markets we could greatly increase the immediate value of the farmers’ cocoa beans, enabling us to pay a much higher price. Eager for economic development, the Grenadian government welcomed our project.
We have formed a cooperative - which includes the three founding members - in which we all earn the same hourly pay and have equal decision-making power. As we grow, Grenadians will be hired and eventually included. There will initially be a distinction between members with long-term commitments and fairly-paid employees without decision making power.
After much experimentation we have assembled and are testing a set of machines in Oregon. When the process is developed to our satisfaction we will bring the equipment back to Grenada. We plan to produce top-notch dark chocolate as well as cocoa powder for drinking and baking. We hope to build more equipment and convert a good percentage of Grenada’s cocoa beans to these valuable products, helping to boost the economy.
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