From bean to bar: Reviving cocoa in El Salvador

  • John Rivera
  • Sep 11, 2018

Several years ago Eduardo Zacapa faced an agonizing decision regarding his ancestral farm, Concepción, nestled in the volcanic mountains of eastern El Salvador.

His coffee crop was not doing well, victim of the plant disease and rising temperatures devastating the commodity across Central America. Should he sell the farm that had been in his family for more than 130 years to developers who wanted to build houses for the adjacent town of Berlin? Or could he turn to an alternative crop?

He joined the ranks of a growing number of farmers in the region who have turned to cocoa, a more resilient crop that gets better price. He was able to use seeds from cocoa trees planted by his great-great grandfather in 1870 that for years merely provided shade for the coffee, thus perpetuating a native variety. “We are rescuing El Salvador's ancestral cacao,” he says.


With help of Lutheran World Relief, his farm is now thriving, and his cocoa, after taking a top prize in an international competition in Paris, is becoming known around the world.

Zacapa is benefitting from Lutheran World Relief’s strategy to help revive the cocoa sector in El Salvador by providing assistance along the entire value chain. Although cocoa is native to El Salvador and its beans were even used as currency in the pre-colonial era, its production fell out of favor after the Spanish Conquest to the point where it had become nearly non-existent.

Lutheran World Relief, working in partnership with Catholic Relief Services under the banner of the Cocoa Alliance, aims to reactivate cocoa production by positioning El Salvador as a producer and exporter of high-quality fine aroma chocolate. Working with medium-sized producers like Zacapa will help lift a sector that will benefit small cocoa producers and improve the lives of their families.

The Cocoa Alliance, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, seeks to strengthen the production of cocoa at several points along the value chain, from improving its cultivation in the field, to perfecting fermentation techniques to expanding its marketing to connect Salvadoran cocoa producers to regional and global chocolate markets.

In the field, Lutheran World Relief has pioneered the Mobile Cocoa smartphone app, which provides instant access to a toolbox of manuals containing up-to-date information on best practices for cocoa cultivation, from planting, pruning and grafting to identifying and treating plant diseases. Mobile Cocoa also offers the latest market information, so producers can negotiate for the best price for their cocoa.


Antonio Munoz, a technician for the El Salvador Cocoa Alliance, oversees the grafting of cocoa plants at the La Casona Clonal Garden in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador. Photo by Oscar Leiva for LWR.

In an effort to help farmers produce the highest quality cocoa, and to preserve El Salvador’s native cocoa varieties, Lutheran World Relief facilitated the creation of eight clonal gardens — seedling nurseries where plants are grafted to produce the finest varieties — spread throughout the country’s cocoa-growing regions. The clonal gardens act as regional training centers where farmers who are establishing their cocoa crops can learn the best techniques from the Cocoa Alliance’s agricultural technicians. 

At the La Casona Clonal Garden in Ciudad Barrios, north of the city of San Miguel, rows of young cocoa plants sit in an open-air greenhouse under an expanse of green netting, arranged and identified by signs noting their clonal variety, like one listed as ICS-95. Cocoa Alliance technicians like Antonio Munoz nurture these plants like their children, although he admits he plays favorites. “I’m in love with clone ICS-60,” he says with a grin.

He says that in addition to stressing good plant genetics, he instructs farmers on soil management to maintain proper pH balance and provide the appropriate nutrients. “It’s just like a baby,” he says. “I can give it food, fill its belly, but that doesn’t mean it's necessarily nutritious.”

Another way to connect cocoa farmers to markets is to assist them in entering their products into regional, national and international chocolate competitions. Samples from two farmers who partner with Lutheran World Relief and are listed on the Cocoa Flavor map were selected as finalists in the 2017 International Cocoa Awards. Zacapa, one of the finalists, received one of the top awards at the Salon du Chocolate in Paris.

Lutheran World Relief helped to fill a gap in the Central America region by creating the inaugural Central America Regional Chocolate Competition, which was held in November 2017 in Managua, Nicaragua and attracted chocolatiers from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Victor Avelar is the owner of Xocolatisimo chocolatier in San Salvador, a mid-sized producer that took multiple awards in the competition. He says he appreciates the boost his business received, raising his profile among Salvadoran chocolate producers. “Lutheran World Relief has helped us become known on a national level,” he says.



Victor Avelar, chocolate maker and owner of Xocolatisimo chocolatier in San Salvador. 

Photos by Oscar Leiva for Lutheran World Relief

John Rivera, Sep 11, 2018 email