It seems that it’s only recently that Philippine chocolate is receiving global recognition mainly because, according to Ocampo, we’ve only started to produce chocolate more or less a decade ago. This is especially surprising given that the Philippines is the first country in Asia to grow cacao. There is even a company in the United States producing chocolate using our own cacao beans and yet, there aren’t many chocolate companies in the Philippines.
Ocampo says that because we’ve become so reliant on other countries, as shown in our history of franchising, we still come out last even if we are the first in everything. For him, it’s about taking opportunities and realizing the Philippines’ potential.
“Chocolate is, in fact, a commodity. It’s something that exists in many countries—it’s just that we forget that we can do it ourselves,” Ocampo says. “It’s about knowing what’s possible, pursuing that, and being able to elevate it.”
“The reason why we really work hard on our cacao is that we are the end users of our product so in order for us to make better quality chocolate, we also have to improve on the quality of our cacao beans. It involves a lot of work, effort, and research to be able to produce better quality cacao,” Ocampo says.
Before the Philippines started producing chocolates, there wasn’t much research on Philippine cacao so people in the industry would bring in studies from other countries, expecting it to work just the same. When Auro Chocolate was first starting, it followed international quality standards but eventually realized that tweaks needed to be done to adapt it to the Philippine palate.
Ocampo took a more scientific route, bringing in leading fermentation specialists to research on developing fermentation protocols in the Philippines. The brand also took it a step further by starting a genetic mapping project to understand the actual heritage of cacao varieties.
“We wanted to make sure that we actually understood the cacao varieties we have. Making it competitive in the international market isn't by luck, right? It involves a lot of hard work and dedication to be able to study it and to make sure we're continuously improving,” says Ocampo.
But beyond the standard procedures research it took to achieve the current state of the industry, Philippine cacao beans wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the people the cacao farmers.
To empower farmers is to empower the country’s agricultural sector. The effects of doing so can ripple across all industries, making agriculture a crucial aspect in a country’s economic growth. But where do you start? How exactly can businesses empower farmers? For Ocampo, it’s doing things at the community level.
Auro Chocolate is one of the highest payers of cacao in the country. Additionally, the brand helps farmers treat their farms as businesses by teaching financial literacy, giving basic business administration classes, and training them to make their own organic farm inputs and improving their own cocoa and chocolate product—all of which allows them to generate revenue for the entire year and not just during harvest season.
When it comes to the trader model, consolidation happens within the farm level and the value-adding happens afterwards. This gives traders the benefit of gaining two or three times the price of the produce. But, Auro Chocolate wants to give as much returns to the farmers as possible. Treating them as partners, Auro Chocolate's farmers are making P50,000 per hectare in 2015, and now they are paying them as much as P200,000 per hectare depending on the quality of their cacao.
In terms of the pricing structure, better quality equates to better prices. Auro Chocolate makes it a point to not just give a fixed price or set a certain standard of cacao for the farmers to follow—it’s about being present in the process of constantly improving produce.
“We really teach them every single step of the way so that they understand what exactly it is that we're looking for [in terms of quality] so that they're able to achieve it themselves as well. They can’t attain the impossible without the necessary tools they need,” Ocampo adds.
True sustainability, in Ocampo’s view, is to be able to firmly stick to your advocacy. Oftentimes people promise a lot in the beginning, and then slowly detract from it as soon as they get bigger. Ultimately, maintaining trust is about commitment. “Our main goal is that as our company grows, we don't leave anyone behind,” he says.
Currently, Auro Chocolate is directly working with around 2,000 families (those with farmer-owned farms), harvesting cacao beans from Davao and South Cotabato. What they really want to showcase is the best representation of each area, including the farm and their farmers. A recent example is when they sent Mang Jose, one of their farming partners from Paquibato, to Paris to receive the award for his cacao beans at this year’s Salon du Chocolat.
“That's where true relationship lies as well. We want to bring attention to these smallholders because it empowers a nation. With Mang Jose, he represents the smallest of the small farmers. He didn't have a passport nor even ventured outside of Davao. It's really inspiring for a lot of real farmers, not those in the large, private farms that we all know. We really want to empower all of the individual farmers who sometimes don't believe that farmers can be more than what they are,” Ocampo explains.
With a long history of exploitation, the local farmers' chance of growing their farms and sustaining their livelihood are slim. Ten million farmers in the Philippines working for the nation’s food security, and yet their numbers aren’t strong enough to even get food on their tables. People, especially the younger generation, are slowly being discouraged to delve into farming. The struggle of farmers should be the whole nation's struggle but their current situation reflects a system that says otherwise.
“The fact that we even have to import rice is ridiculous. There are things that are obviously for us but are currently not. That’s why we should go back to our roots. Generally agriculture is something that has been with us for a really long time and a lot of countries have learned from the Philippines in regard to agriculture, but for some reason, we're always left behind,” Ocampo says.
Currently, this award-winning Philippine chocolate brand is already working with a few hotels in Singapore such as the Grand Hyatt as well as in Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, France, and the United Kingdom. Auro Chocolate is also distributing in the United States and will do the same next year in the United Arab Emirates.
“Filipinos overseas are very much our market. But we don't want to limit ourselves to just that—we want to be able to grow and serve more places, people, and cultures. And the only way we would be able to do that is by understanding their culture as well and being able to grow and adapt,” Ocampo says.
With regard to opening their second store in Tokyo, Ocampo praises the Japanese market’s knowledge of and appreciation for chocolate. “We have really good partners in Japan that have really pushed our brand forward and who also found us on Instagram, which is really funny. They're very active and they're really trying to help. But, what was really amazing for us is that they didn't change anything about the brand,” he says.
What happens most of the time with brands coming from the Philippines, according to Ocampo, is that when it goes outside the country it doesn’t retain some of its original features. The fact that the Japanese market, which is very specific and strict in terms of quality, preserved Philippine chocolate’s true character, really says something about local cacao beans.
Auro Chocolate tries to be strategic in choosing which trade shows to join, some for the purpose of education and some for brand awareness. For the company, ultimately it’s all about learning. “Because the chocolate industry in the Philippines is young, a lot of times our international market doesn't even realize that the Philippines grows cacao, let alone makes chocolate. But it's the trend [in the international market] that origin plays a big factor. And so everybody kind of wants to try different origins from around the world,” Ocampo says.
“We really hope that more people will be able to see chocolate not just as a dessert ingredient but something that can be used even for the mainstream,” says Ocampo.
One initiative is to promote local cacao beans as a no-dessert concept (meaning, chocolate is incorporated in savory dishes) via a bar crawl in Poblacion. This includes Lampara's two-day braised pork belly with chocolate glaze, Pangasinan sea salt, and cacao nibs, Khao Khai's chocolate bagoong with green mangoes, and Pedro Tap House's chocolate stout.
Ocampo naturally hopes for Auro Chocolate's steady growth in the future as one of the country's main chocolate suppliers, and soon in Southeast Asia—all without leaving any farmer or community behind.