Sharing the Gold Medal Experience

2 hands sorting through cacao beans

A Gold Medal

a graphic of a gold medal for cacao of excellence This year at the Cacao of Excellence Awards, Colombian cacao beans garnered the world’s attention. Competing with more than 220 cacao samples from over 50 countries, Workakao, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Meta, was awarded a gold medal and shared the big stage with 18 of the world’s top cacao producers.

Wokakao’s criollo bean–the only Colombian sample awarded a medal–was described as “complex” but “mild”, a “creamy moderate cacao” that is well balanced with a “pleasant caramel note that lingers in the chocolatey long-lasting aftertaste.”


liquid chocolate being spread on a metal slabWorkakao’s winning sample was the result of hard work to improve quality, yields, and processing through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that was facilitated by USAID in 2021. Motivated by the stakeholders of the PPP, Workakao has encouraged its 900+ cacao farming families to sell their “wet” cocoa beans to its collection center, enabling the cooperative to standardize post-harvest processing and achieve a consistently higher-quality bean after fermentation.

“The gold medal is the result of the work we have been doing with the support of PPP stakeholders and the cacao farmer field schools that taught us to apply the acquired knowledge on our farms,” said Leonel Murrillo, a member of Agroguamal, one of the cacao organizations under Workakao.”

a woman sorting through cacao beansIn the wake of the historic moment, USAID’s Land for Prosperity Activity wanted to take advantage of the momentum. Farmers under additional USAID-facilitated PPPs in the cacao value chain traveled around the country for multi-day experience-sharing workshops to learn more about how Workakao and Meta-based producers are improving cacao processing and marketing as well as how to improve the integration of youth and women into the value chain.

The 16 cacao organizations from Cauca, Meta, Norte de Santander, and Nariño met with key actors to share valuable experiences related to technical processes and management of the bean, operating farmer associations, training rural farmers across a large area, and finding niche export markets for quality aroma cacao. The farmers also shared their experiences with organic certification and environmentally-friendly farming models based on commitments to end deforestation.

“We were immensely happy because the gold medal represents the work of our entire cacao community. It also has injected us with strength and hard work, because the real commitment starts now. We need to be able to sustain the quality of our cacao and give our products an added value, so the benefits reach our communities well into the future.”

– Leonel Murillo, cacao farmer and member of the Workakao Cooperative, Meta, Colombia

The Women at the Heart of Cacao

“We have learned so much on this journey. We have learned that we need to prioritize quality in order to reach buyers willing to pay a better price. Workakao is an example for all of us to continue working towards that quality,” explained Arcelia Prieto, a cacao farmer in Norte de Santander and member of Asoprocanor (Association of Cacao Producers from Norte de Santander and Catatumbo).

Prieto joined the events to share her experience with the creation and promotion of the Women with a Heart of Cacao (Mujeres con Corazón Cacaotero) strategy, which has engaged 70 women producers from the conflictive region of Catatumbo, which is located in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. The empowerment strategy encourages the development of new capacities of women farmers, including technical skills to process and transform their cacao into final products like chocolate.


“What we have learned here with Workakao is that we have to start small, from the base, in order to be successful.”

– Arcelia Prieto, cacao farmer from Norte de Santander.

The women-led strategy also takes into account other aspects of their lives and business such as who will replace them and take over their cacao plantations. The long history of illicit economies in the region and the border with Venezuela have made it difficult to keep children safe and insulated from risky behavior and illegal activities. To confront this harsh reality, the women have incorporated their children into the cacao plantations to teach them essential farming techniques and how the bean is processed.

“As mothers, we all suffer as we watch our children fall victim to drug addiction or illegal activities. They are losing their childhood. So we have included our children to be part of the agribusiness. It’s important to show them from an early age. They are the future and have the potential to show the country that Catatumbo is not just a place for illicit economies.”

– Arcelia Prieto of Asoprocanor.

100 Years of Cacao

To understand how cacao can be a driving force of family integration, the women of Catatumbo need to look no further than the farm of Betsabeth Álvarez, a cacao legend in Colombian hailing from the municipality of Padilla, Cauca. Betsabeth celebrated her 101st birthday this year and is still participating, hand in hand with her family and community, in the marketing strategy of her now famous chocolate balls: Choculas.

“If you ask me, chocolate meets all your nutritional needs. It will make you strong and improve your memory. Look at me, this is life, and I am happy,” Betsabeth said.

Betsabeth started her life dedicated to cacao as a young child tending her grandparents’ and parents’ trees, who taught her how to process cacao with a mortar and pestle.

“My entire family is involved, my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, everybody is part of it, and I hope they never let it disappear, because this is a beautiful tradition.”

In addition to cultivation and processing, the experience sharing events focus on land rights, women’s rights, and a better understanding of the care economy. Most of the women who work in land and agricultural activities also spend a large part of their time doing unpaid care work: such as caring for, feeding, and raising children, as well as activities that are vital for a healthy society, such as caring for the elderly and disabled.

“Being with women cacao farmers from other regions has allowed us to recognize, recover, and share ancestral knowledge that is in all of us. Afro-Colombian women have that feeling of being resilient to protect our communities.”

– Fanny Rodríguez, member of the cacao farming group from Rescate Las Varas, an Afro-Colombian community council in Tumaco, Nariño.

Rediscovering History

It is believed that cacao first grew in the Amazon basin and then spread north and south throughout the Americas, including to the Aztec and the Mayan civilizations, who developed successful processing techniques. For them, the plant was a symbol of wealth, and its beans were used as currency.

Today, cacao is grown primarily in tropical climates around the Equator. Approximately half of the world’s cacao comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa. Despite ideal climatic conditions for cacao cultivation, Colombia is not even in the top 10 cacao-producing countries. Low levels of education and aging cacao crops have limited small-scale cacao farmers productivity and earning potential.

A Future for Cacao in Colombia

In 2022, Colombia produced more than 62,000 metric tons of cacao beans, positioning it within the top 20. Unfortunately, Colombia’s cacao exports are minimal and the majority of what is produced is sold domestically. For now, this is one of the challenges that cacao producers like Workakao have solved.

Over the last four years, Land for Prosperity has facilitated the creation of seven PPPs related to the cacao value chain that include over 33,600 farmers, 41% of which are women. In many parts of Colombia, such as Tumaco’s Pacific coast and the mountains of Northern Cauca, women represent half of the workforce.

“USAID has been there for us since the beginning. They have helped us obtain training, they come to our farms to teach us about becoming organic farmers, and above all, they have helped us become visible to a market that did not exist before.”
– Enith Zanabria, cacao producer from Meta and member of Workakao cooperative.

Cross-posted from USAID Exposure


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