Revitalizing Southern Bahia with Cabruca, Cocoa, and Chocolate

As he joins the 2018 Partnership Meeting, Brazilian social entrepreneur Guilherme Leal, co-founder of WCF member Dengo, writes about the natural beauty of Southern Bahia, and how cocoa can help preserve it.

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Author Guilherme Leal


When I first arrived in Serra Grande, a small village in Bahia’s south coast, almost 15 years ago, I was looking for a place to get away from it all, where I could rest and just enjoy nature. Slowly, I started to get to know a network of local organizations and leaders, who strove to take care of the people and landscape of this unique place, which boasted one of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth. But it soon became clear that its wealth in terms of natural assets did not translate into prosperity and quality of life for local inhabitants. That was when I started to support projects that sought to understand the needs of the local community, as well as to improve public education and urban planning. After that, I joined other individuals and groups to evaluate possible options to create a blueprint for the sustainable and inclusive development of this particular region.

We quickly realized that, in addition to improving education, healthcare and civil engagement, an overall area revitalization hinged on stimulating key economic activities, chief among them cocoa and chocolate production, which are culturally and economically important in the Southern Bahia region. The good news was that there were a couple of initiatives already in place to tackle this challenge. What is more, market prognostics pointed to the likelihood of the emergence of a new prosperity cycle for this activity. Also, we noticed this particular crop could act as a catalyst for other local activities, such as sustainable forestry in the Atlantic Forest, ecotourism programs and environmental services. Finally, a few studies showed it was possible to triple cocoa production in the region, resulting in 300,000 new jobs created over 20 years.

And so, this place of refuge became the birthplace of a project that has gotten me increasingly excited about it since its inception. It first started in 2012 as a sustainable cocoa farming experiment that focused on studying and improving the traditional cabruca system, which makes it possible to produce cocoa beans while preserving the surrounding natural vegetation. Next, we formed partnerships to support the creation of the Cocoa Innovation Center at the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz (Uesc), which tests and evaluates the quality of the beans produced in the region. The project culminated last year with the launch of Dengo, a chocolate and coffee production company that is, above all, the result of a vision focused on regional development.

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Photo by Dengo | Cacau do Brasil

Dengo brings together small and medium-sized producers from Southern Bahia and end consumers. We are currently working with over 40 producers, from a mapped network of 120 potential cocoa growers. On one end of the production chain, we help train producers and pay an above-market-average price for their product to stimulate the production of high quality beans and ensure they have a good income. On the other, we invest in research and innovation in order to offer clients a complete experience that combines pleasure, health benefits, high quality Brazilian ingredients and a real connection with the product’s origins. This model is, in my opinion, in line with Brazilian and global consumer trends, which point to the decline of the preference for processed foods. A friend of mine once posited a very interesting theory, that Dengo is a LATTE company, that is, it possesses the five qualities that have increasingly become benchmarks for young, modern consumers when buying products: “Local, Authentic, Transparent, Traceable and Ethical”. Dengo products are all that plus healthy, with no added chemicals and a low sugar content.

However, more than following trends, I believe one of the greatest contributions Brazil can make to the world is finding healthy and sustainable ways of producing food. Agriculture & livestock farming is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases emissions in the country. It is also responsible for two thirds of all water consumed nationally. On the other hand, we are the second largest food producer worldwide, and have a modern and competitive agriculture industry, in addition to being located in an area with favorable climate, great land availability and the second largest forest areas in the world. If we can combine all this agricultural and environmental might with nature conservation and social inclusion, we can create even more wealth and continue feeding the world through a new type of relationship between people and the planet. In Southern Bahia, we are working to build this type of relationship and, who knows, we may even end up inspiring others to follow suit.