At 9am the sun is piercing through our van’s windows as it winds along a scenic highway, 1,300 feet above sea level. On the other side of the shining glass are rolling hills and verdant fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. But this glorious scenery isn’t the main attraction in the rural community of Palmar Grande*, 23 miles south of Puerto Plata. Instead we stop in front of a pastel-colored one-story building, where our small group hops off. We are at the home of Chocal, a small women-owned and operated chocolate factory.
Within a half hour, our hairnets are on and the work begins alongside the owners of this rural community enterprise. We are split across four working stations–cleaning, sorting, pouring chocolate into moulds, and wrapping. At the cleaning station, under a thatched gazebo, buckets filled with cocoa beans are ready for sorting.
Finding the bad piece isn’t that obvious. Milagro Parra–a grandmother turned factory owner–is focused, and her agile fingers dig up throwaways. She watches me struggle, and smiles.
“It’s not easy to see at first,” she says.
Housewives Turned Entrepreneurs
In 2007, 30 women from the small town Palmar Grande–in the province of Puerto Plata–including Milagro, decided to take control of their future and create a business close to home. They knocked on the door of local non-profit
Fundelosa for help. After a brainstorming session, one idea stuck: how about making chocolate from the cacao trees
growing abundantly in their community?
Chocal was born–Chocolate de la Cuenca de Altamira or chocolate from the river basin of Altamira.
“Before this I was working in a pajama factory,” Milagro shares with me while we sort the beans. “I was the one checking the collars. I was commuting every day to Puerto Plata, leaving my daughter behind. After that I was home unemployed for a year, until Chocal came along. Now, I’m a business owner.”
Run a search for the world’s top nine cocoa producing countries and the Dominican Republic figures prominently–a leader in exportation of organic cacao. But if shipping this valuable crop overseas isn’t new to the DR, it only recently became a source of income and purpose for women in rural communities. Communities like Palmar Grande on the north coast of the DR, where cocoa trees are ubiquitous yet less than a decade ago were only transported and sold by men, unfermented.
The women had no job opportunities, unless they moved to the cities as housemaids.
Women Empowering Themselves
“The impact of Chocal is that we’ve managed to involve not just rural women,” explains Noemi Crisóstomo, Chocal vice-president, “but especially the older women who were considered unemployable and felt useless. The women raising grandchildren are the same women who are now adding value to the community.”
To add to this social triumph, the Chocal ladies have come a long way since the days of using wood fire to roast cocoa beans in cauldrons, and making simple chocolate balls. A USAID grant allowed them to purchase modern machinery in 2010, and to train under a rotating trio of visiting chocolatiers–from Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Peru.
Chocal’s finished products are now sold in two of the DR’s major supermarket chains, Jumbo and Nacional. At the factory itself, a small gift shop sells their 25 cocoa and fruit products, including chocolate bars–white, milk, dark, orange flavored–fruit wines, and chocolate liqueur.
“I never imagined this,” says Luz Melesia Parra, mother of three and now President of Chocal. “I had never worked before in my life! I’m the youngest of the Chocal owners, and I’m 37 years old.”
Empowering The Community
An hour into the visit, hopping across various rooms and working alongside the women in Chocal’s small building–once the village disco–the space feels like a real enterprise, yet as comfortable as a home. For the women, the familiarity runs deeper. Generations of sons and daughters work together, from the winnowing machine to the wrapping station.
“Our teens work here as well, says Luz. “That’s my oldest son, and next to him another member’s son. They are the chocalitos,” she laughs. “The sons of the women of Chocal.”
Other unemployed young men from the community are rotated every two months. And individual farmers sell passion fruit, cherries, and jagua (guinep) fruits to Chocal regularly for their tropical wines.
The women didn’t make a monthly salary in the earlier years, and while sales have progressed, the system is still one of sharing a small part of the profits on a scale. The rest of the money is reinvested into the venture and pays off–every two months–a 2013 micro-enterprise government loan of US$265,000.
“What we make covers our expenses and we keep reinvesting our profits,” explains Luz, “but when visitors come, it brings us even more benefit because they buy our chocolate and help us grow. It’s a matter of growing now.”
In the little time off they have from running the factory, some of the women are studying to improve the future of their company. Noemi is taking industrial psychology classes at the University of Santiago, while Luz is majoring in business administration.
“We still have a dream to take on more women from our community,” explains Noemi. “And of course we want to be able to pay them. Those women who are still at home, waiting for the husband to bring something in, and struggling single mothers.”
Growing The Chocal Dream
After lunch, the on-site gift shop is crowded; chocolate bars and bottles of fruit wine are flying off the shelves.
“A lot of times, you know, tourists are sold a dream,” Noemi tells me, “and they can’t be sure that their money is really going towards a good thing. But in this case, they can see for themselves and know it’s true.”
It was incredible to spend the day with women who transformed their lives, and didn’t let adversity dictate their circumstances. And like the Maya Gods five thousand years ago, the Chocal women realized the power of cacao and the value of leadership. Their hope now is to inspire more travelers to join their mission of changing more lives and establishing a sustainable future. Chocolate making with a purpose–it doesn’t get better than that.
*The population of Palmar Grande, a section of Altamira town, counted 1,625 as of the 2010 Census, of whom 45.8% were women and 51% over 35 years of age. 16.6% have never gone to school. See UNDP Report, Proyecto: Evaluación de Impacto de Iniciativas Presidenciales orientadas a mejorar la calidad de vida de la población.
To arrange for a tour of the Chocal Factory and meet these wonderful ladies while visiting the Puerto Plata area, get in touch with them here.
For more cultural and community tourism experiences, consult Moon Dominican Republic and stay tuned right here to DRVisitor.com’s blog.