When we talk about chocolate in Colombia, we have in mind a food that is an essential part of our diet and has a cultural background based on our country’s chocolate-making tradition. Hot chocolate is a must at breakfast. It brings us together in the morning with our loved ones and fills us with vitality to face the day ahead. Being an essential food in Colombia means that its supply chain cannot stop in times of COVID-19. On the contrary, the demand for chocolate has increased now that families are back at home together. So, how are we dealing with the pandemic?
In Latin America, we are just beginning to experience the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some countries are beginning to revive their economies, we are preparing to face an unprecedented situation in the region, now the epicentre of the pandemic. In Colombia, where the informal economy accounts for more than 30% of its Gross Domestic Product, it is challenging to sustain pre-emptive isolation without affecting thousands of families’ livelihoods.
Although infection numbers are much lower in rural Colombia than in urban areas, there are still significant challenges. Government support and health services are less accessible than in major cities, with only essential health services and low testing capacity. Virtual education is a challenge in rural communities with limited access to internet, computers or tablets. Farmers are also facing difficulties in transporting and storing products in supply centers due to increasing local and national restrictions associated with extended quarantines. This has resulted in losses of perishable products like fruits or vegetables that do not reach urban distribution centers and will, therefore, threaten farmers’ income in the months to come.
Companies involved in primary consumer goods sectors have reorganized their operations and adapted to new logistics and production processes to ensure continuity. Luker Chocolate is no exception. Faced with the expansion of COVID-19, we continue to work in compliance with all the biosafety protocols required to mitigate risk in the supply chain and ensure that the factory and distribution network operates in line with national and international guidelines.
Our focus has been to protect and prioritize all those involved in the supply chain. We have reached out directly to farmers through “The Cocoa Effect”, our international cooperation initiative with USAID, to understand their needs and current conditions. In the words of Cristóbal Portocarrero, a cocoa farmer in the Tumaco region, who is part of the project, “The most complicated part of the quarantine has been the shortage of supplies and the increase in prices due to mobility restrictions. However, we have been able to continue working on the farm and move production forward.”
During this process we have seen that farmers benefit from growing their own food, thereby guaranteeing their families’ sustenance. While our agricultural support staff left the countryside due to safety restrictions, they have returned to provide technical assistance under new control measures. Today, new planting and rehabilitation activities are being carried out following self-care practices to ensure the community’s health. We have provided farmers with food, basic hygiene and protection kits, as well as videos and radio messages containing relevant safety information.
In the municipality of Necoclí, where we have one of our cocoa farms, tourism has weakened. However, the community is pulling together to find solutions. While hotels and restaurants reinvent their businesses, most of the inhabitants have the advantage of being able to grow and fish their food. In the words of Silvia Hoyos, Occupational Health and Safety Assistant on our farm, “Although we are learning to live with the pandemic, contagion occurs at a slower rate than in the city. Besides, people in rural areas share their food and live as a community. We are privileged. Anyone, during this situation, wishes they were in the countryside and not in the city.”
On the other hand, only 7% of the inhabitants of Necoclí have access to the internet, affecting the continuity of education. For this reason, with The Chocolate Dream, we have established initiatives for remote teaching, such as telephone calls and counselling of families with teachers. Additionally, we created the initiative “Together for Necoclí”, an alliance to strengthen education in the region through internet connectivity improvement, book donations, and reading club and mentoring program development.
In regions where we do not have staff supporting farmers directly, we work closely with cocoa producer and supplier associations. We have provided material to be distributed to association members, protection kits, and in-kind support for people working in facilities who have been economically affected. We are also bearing most of the transportation cost increases caused by the pandemic.
We believe that education is one of the most critical pillars in transforming cocoa-growing regions in Colombia. This is why we have been committed to knowledge transfer programs directed at smallholder farmers at Granja Luker , our centre for technological research, scientific exploration, innovation, and training in cocoa in Colombia, since 1962. Given the current situation, we are developing online booklets to provide training in better agricultural productivity practices during confinement. In some parts of the country, we have been able to offer internet plans to help farmers access their study plans.
This pandemic has undoubtedly left us with new challenges. We are maintaining our commitment to working with the country’s cocoa farmers to face this new reality. Despite the drawbacks of COVID-19, we remain convinced of the power of cocoa to transform Colombian rural communities.