Sowing Seeds of Peace and Inclusion: Auro Chocolate Transforms the Cacao Landscape in Davao

Photo of cacao beans in the Philippines.
Cacao offers opportunities for inclusion and post-conflict development in Davao, Philippines. Photo by Michelle Johnsen of Lancaster Photography Collective.

The Filipino community of Paquibato in Davao grows some of the best cacao in the world. Until several years ago, however, the community lacked many basic necessities, including stable access to electricity and easy road access, as a result of decades of conflict.

Paquibato was long considered a battleground between the country’s military and rebel groups. It was only in 2019 that local peacebuilding efforts kicked off in the area and aimed at first addressing the critical issues of hunger and lack of basic services affecting rural poor and indigenous groups. Further post-conflict development has required a multi-faceted approach. As part of this process, agricultural transformation and the creation of decent work opportunities can play a role in sowing seeds of peace. One enterprise working in the region has taken on these key efforts.  

Auro Chocolate is a proudly Filipino tree-to-bar chocolate brand that works with local farming communities to produce cacao and bring it to the hands of consumers in the form of chocolate. By working directly with farmers, Auro can pay an additional 10-15 percent premium above the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) world market price, which supports more sustainable incomes for farmers. Founded by two friends, Kelly Go and Mark Ocampo, Auro has worked in Paquibato for the last eight years to produce one of the enterprise’s signature types of cacao.

Cacao as a pathway to post-conflict development

When Auro first began working in Paquibato, it faced an uphill battle. The community was fearful after facing prolonged conflict, but over the years, Auro has become a trusted partner in the community by staying the course and delivering on its promises. Today, cacao is bringing new income opportunities that are helping to break the cycle of conflict in the region.

“They shared their stories with me – all of the things that their kids had faced, how leaders before in that community were arming even children, and how they slowly pivoted away from that, and how that is not a future that they want for themselves, or their children,” shares Kelly Go, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Auro Chocolate. “Cacao has been part of that story as an alternative livelihood and is now a different way of organizing that community for good this time. We’ve been there about eight years now and it’s been relatively peaceful. Now there’s almost a fully paved road to that community – before there wasn’t.” 

Auro Chocolate’s partnership with the community has even brought international recognition for its success. In 2019, one of the cacao farmers from the Paquibato Tree Developer’s Cooperative (PTDC), Jose Saguban, represented the Philippines at the International Cocoa Awards held in Paris. He received the first award the country had ever won for the cacao they had produced, winning under the “Top 20 Best Cacao Beans in the World” category.

Going organic and promoting inclusion

In the nearby community of Saloy, Auro Chocolate has also been pursuing organic certification through its partnership with the Saloy Organic Farmers Association (SOFA). Shifting to certified organic cacao has the added benefits of offering entry to new markets, promoting healthier farms and products, and improving biodiversity in Davao’s cacao-producing communities. Obtaining financial support and training for international organic farming certification, however, proved to be a challenge.

MEDA’s partnership with Auro Chocolate through the Resilience and Inclusion through Investment for Sustainable Agrikultura (RIISA) project funded by Global Affairs Canada has played a key role in addressing these obstacles. Through the provision of training and financial resources for organic certification, MEDA has supported Auro Chocolate and SOFA to obtain their certification for producing organic cacao.

They put their new organic product to the test at the Cacao of Excellence Awards this February, winning the silver prize for Asia. “Not only did we have a win in terms of the certification, but in terms of the quality, which is completely separate,” Go says. “It’s nice to see that we can compete head-to-head with some of the best cacao beans being produced all around the world.”

MEDA’s support has also enhanced Auro’s intentional integration of gender inclusion practices into its community programs. As a result of these efforts, SOFA nominated one of their women farmers, Judith Gabasa, to represent them at the competition.

“On that stage, there are very few female farmers that get recognized. I think we were maybe one out of a handful. We hope that serves as an inspiration for women who are involved in the cacao industry, especially on the farming side, that they can do it too, because they are being represented already.”

– Kelly Go, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Auro Chocolate

The way forward for Auro Chocolate

Auro Chocolate is now working with 10 cooperative associations and farmer groups like PTDC and SOFA, which represent around 600 individual farmers. The enterprise has also expanded into cafes in the Philippines and beyond – moving beyond the tree-to-bar model and adding a tree-to-cup or tree-to-plate model into the mix.  

Back in Paquibato, where the “tree” stage of this model originates, cacao continues to play a role in sustainable post-conflict development through Auro Chocolate’s partnership with the community. While Go recognizes the challenges facing the sector and the complexities of post-conflict development, she is also optimistic about the future. “We’ve seen the changes slowly, but surely. And I am a firm believer that, actually, that is the most sustainable path for growth – when it is happening because of not only external but also because of the internal changes happening in the community.”

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  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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