KENNETH and Shiela Reyes-Lao had high-paying jobs in the fast-growing information technology (IT) industry in Metro Manila.
For 10 years, Shiela led several software development projects for huge companies while Kenneth handled IT and sales operations in local and transnational companies. The couple also built a tech start-up in 2013.
But in 2016, they left these and the urbanization problems of Metro Manila to take a chance in Davao City’s then-budding cacao industry and establish Cacao Culture. They have never looked back.
“We found that the traffic, the stress and the high cost of living in Manila were taking a toll on our relationship and our health. We decided after getting married in 2016 to move to Davao City,” Kenneth shared.
The couple started from scratch. As they were looking for employment and possible business opportunities, they became interested in cacao.
“We researched and attended training that was available at that time and really fell in love with the concept of being able to grow and make our own chocolate. We dabbled into the different value chains of cacao, from starting a seedling nursery to developing a small cacao farm, and fast forward to today making our own cacao-based products,” he said.
They initially set up as a cacao seedling nursery in Calinan to cater to smallholder farmers and private farm owners until the couple decided to post-harvest processing and cacao product manufacturing and worked with an increasing number of cacao farmers. Soon after, they developed a 3-hectare farm alongside the nursery and post-harvest facility.
Kenneth admitted it was not an easy journey as learning every aspect of the cacao value-chain can be costly.
“We had no prior experience and knowledge about agriculture and chocolate making. We went on with our journey doing a lot of trial and error, some errors were expensive, but we learned a lot from those that helped us improve our processes and products. We also learned from industry mentors and limited resources about Philippine cacao that we could find online,” he said.
While Davao City has long been known to have the potential of producing quality cacao beans, it was rather a less-explored industry during the time they started.
“Quality cacao beans, initially, were hard to find. While we have our own farm, we work with other farmer cooperatives. Working closely with them and building strong relationships with farmers and cooperatives helped us get enough supply of quality beans for our finished cacao products,” he said.
Having understood the situation of the cacao industry, the couple grew Cacao Culture as a social enterprise that provided a livelihood for cacao farmers and their families.
“We try our best to develop products that would increase the income of our social enterprise and bring a positive economic impact on our farmers and our community. We were able to employ the wives of our farmers for production which contributes to their household income and have also worked with resellers for them to earn while they showcase Philippine cacao products,” he said.
Currently, Cacao Culture produces the usual tablea, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, cacao nibs and other innovative products like cacao tea and cacao soaps. They also have other products under development.
“We try to approach the business in a holistic manner in terms of developing products. We wanted to offer more products to Filipinos outside of our traditional tablea. That pushed us to really dive into product R&D (research and development) and business partnerships,” Kenneth said.
“We just want to bring out and maximize the potential of the cacao through developing other cacao-based products. We believe by doing so would greatly impact the economy and the lives of our farmers,” he added.
Their persistence paid off as their sales steadily increased for the past three years. They owed it to the country’s booming tourism industry and desire of people to support local businesses and social enterprises as well as healthy and sustainably processed products.
Their digital presence, especially in e-commerce platforms like Shoppee, Lazada as well as on their website has also helped them to reach more customers and promote their advocacy.
Kenneth is planning to set up a small chocolate commissary that can increase its production capacity to serve its growing market.
Despite gaining prominence and attention in the international scene for having the best chocolate, Kenneth sees that Davao City still has a long way to go. But the government support will help the industry flourish further.
“The Craft or Bean-to-Bar chocolate industry is still in its infancy. I believe that with the democratization of resources and information and the compactness and affordability of chocolate-making machines in the market, we will have a second wave of chocolate makers in the country,” he said.
“My strong hope is Filipino youth and entrepreneurs embrace our Philippine grown cacao and chocolate products to support future innovation, value-added products, and a lot more product development in the country which will lead to uplifting the lives of our cacao farmers,” he added.