An Interview with Catholic Relief Services Nicaragua’s Jorge Brenes Abdalah
1. Could you share with us a brief description of your project and its achievements to date with cocoa farmers in Nicaragua?
The Program for Rural Enterprise, Health and Environment – Caribbean Zone (PROGRESA Caribe) is a five-year (2014 – 2019) value chain strengthening project for the cacao and livestock sectors in the Caribbean Coast Region of Nicaragua.
The Food for Progress Program, financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a total budget of $10,254,800 and is under implementation by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in consortium with TechnoServe (TNS) and Lutheran World Relief (LWR). CRS and its partners work with small-scale cacao producers in 16 vulnerable municipalities in the Caribbean Region and other departments of the country.
PROGRESA Caribe is unique in its dual focus on cacao agroforestry systems and sustainable livestock development, two of the most important economic sectors in the country. This combination creates complementary short-term income generating opportunities, medium- and long-term sustainable livelihood development, and natural resource preservation.
PROGRESA Caribe wants to create a long-term impact by developing profitable market linkages and buyer-seller relationships, strengthening producer cooperatives and facilitating investment in value-adding infrastructure for the value chain. Up to now, PROGRESA CARIBE is attending more than 2,500 cacao farmer making investments at every stage of the supply chain: production at the farm level; quality; logistics and handling at the postharvest level in the cooperatives.
2. You recently signed an MOU with FCIA. What value do you see in this partnership with the fine chocolate industry?
For CRS, FCIA represents a partnership that will help us learn and connect cacao buyers in the U.S. to producers in Nicaragua. We recognize the excellent reputation of FCIA and its membership. Also, we understand the need from your members for high quality cacao beans. On the other hand, CRS support thousands of cacao farmers and their families in Latin American who depend on their cacao plantations; we want to make sure that these farmers are able to connect with formal buyers that are interested in building long-term relationships with their suppliers.
Nicaragua produces a fine cacao that the world deserves to know about. Last year in London, the winner of the World Final of The International Chocolate Awards was Friis-Holm (Denmark), where the chocolate was made with 100% Nicaraguan beans. That is why we did not hesitate traveling last June to New York to participate in your Elevate Chocolate Summer 2018 Event and show the attendees the quality of cacao that Nicaragua is producing.
We had more than 50 visitors at our table where we exchanged opinions and ideas and provided them samples of fermented cacao beans and chocolate bars made with Nicaraguan cacao. Understanding their criteria and preferences were very important for our learning. We brought samples of conventional, organic and UTZ certified cacao beans to the event.
3. Can you give an example of how companies have partnered with your program farmers?
From the beginning of every project, CRS always try to connect the beneficiaries with private companies to which farmers and cooperatives can build their relationships and facilitate sustainability. Financial institutions and the European buyer “Ritter Sport” have already developed strong relationships with the Nicaraguan farmers. We want to do the same with ECOM, and perhaps others, in the U.S.
4. What final message would you like to share with companies interested to engage with your program?
We want to bring together U.S. cacao buyers and Nicaraguan cacao farmers. For us, there is no small company. In fact, we believe that there is an opportunity for small buyers and small producers to grow together. The project has been very successful in closing the gaps between the needs of the market and the historical capacities of the farmers and their cooperatives. That is why our interest is to provide the U.S. chocolate makers the best possible cacao beans so they can make the best chocolate bar.
If there is any company interested in meeting the farmers we would be more than happy to accompany the visitors in Nicaragua.
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