Making chocolate at Oaxacanita. Making chocolate at Oaxacanita.

Fighting poverty with chocolate in Oaxaca

Young entrepreneurs' chocolate factory supports families in state's poorest region

In the poorest region of Oaxaca, the production of chocolate is providing a much-needed boost to the local economy.

Germán Santillán and Ruth Valladares launched their artisanal chocolate company Oaxacanita in 2015 in the town of Tamazulápam. Their aim: to generate a source of employment to help alleviate poverty in the Mixteca region.

Just two and a half years later, the company supports 26 local families through the employment it provides.

Santillán, 26, told the newspaper El Universal that he first came up with the idea to fight poverty with chocolate in 2013.

After finishing a business degree at the Technological University of the Mixteca, he completed an internship at the China-Mexico Chamber of Commerce where — in consideration of his own background — he was encouraged to develop a chocolate-based social initiative.

Drinking hot chocolate in Santillán’s home town of Tamazulápam is a traditional part of the culture and incorporated in important events such as weddings and wakes.

So he and Valladares, also 26, set out to recreate the traditional Oaxacan recipe which combines cacao, sugar, almonds and cinnamon to produce chocolate tablets that are mixed with hot water or milk to make a delicious, frothy and warming drink.

The pair enlisted local housewives with knowledge of the traditional recipe and process to join their initiative.

In the first year of operation, the company made just 10 kilograms of chocolate per month but production has now grown to 120 to 150 kilograms monthly and their product is sold as far afield as León, Guanajuato, and Mexico City.

However, the completely handmade process — which takes place in the backyard of Santillán’s family home — remains essentially the same.

Local women toast cacao on a clay comal, or griddle, and then grind it into a powder before it is mixed with the other ingredients.

Once the mixture is formed, it is molded into balls then flattened and dried into circular tablets of drinking chocolate before finally being packaged for sale.

However, Oaxacanita is not only responsible for bringing economic benefits to the region, which is home to Mexico’s most impoverished municipality.

It is also behind a renaissance of the cultivation of cacao in Oaxaca, something that Santillán and Valladares admit they had no idea would happen when they first started out.

In response to its own growing demand for cocoa beans, Oaxacanita planted 2,000 cacao trees this year in the municipality of Putla, situated about 150 kilometers from Tamazulápam towards the state’s Pacific coast.

Local cultivation of the the crop on which Oaxacanita is most dependent makes good business sense.

Just 1% of cocoa beans used to make chocolate in Mexico come from Oaxaca, Santillán estimated, meaning that Oaxacanita currently has to buy its cacao from neighboring states.

Consequently, the company’s costs are high because, while a kilogram of cacao in Chiapas costs just 28 pesos (US $1.40), after transportation costs are added the price can increase to as much as 80 pesos (US $4).

Santillán and Valladares hope that within three to four years they will start to reap the benefits of cacao cultivation in Oaxaca, and they’re convinced that the coffee-growing areas will also prove to be fertile ground for cacao.

“From a very basic product that is part of the local diet, we’re creating a production chain that is supplied by the same society,” Santillán said, adding that cultivating cinnamon in the state will be the next step.

Oaxacanita has received recognition for its socially-aware business model both from a United States-backed social entrepreneurship program and a university in France and continues to find new markets for its chocolate, whcih can also be purchased on its website.

Source: El Universal (sp)

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