Guest post

A peek behind the scenes of an innovative start-up: Pacha de Cacao

By Marika van Santvoort

- Last updated on GMT

Pacha de Cacao is one of the first brands to bring the healthy cacao juice to a wider market. Pic: Pacha de Cacao
Pacha de Cacao is one of the first brands to bring the healthy cacao juice to a wider market. Pic: Pacha de Cacao

Related tags: Pacha de Cacao, cacao juice

Pacha de Cacao is a 100% natural and nutritious cacao juice made from the fresh pulp of the cacao fruit. Marika van Santvoort founded the company in 2020 and she explains how she was introduced to this most nutritious by-product - and how, as an entrepreneur, she created a start-up to bring this hitherto neglected part of the cocoa pod to a global market.

The secret of the cacao pulp

It was July 2017. I was in the north-western region of Ecuador, when something shifted for me. 

My Ecuadorian friends had warned me not to travel to Esmeraldas, especially not to the city, which was dangerous, dirty, and with a high crime rate. “Not a place for a woman​”, they said. But when I got there, I noticed how green and lush it was, with rivers and mangrove trees around. People were living in simple houses made of wood and corrugated iron. They were a mix between natives and Africans, descendants of African slaves that had escaped captivity and moved into the area many years ago.

I was visiting a farmer's group and was introduced to a man who showed me around on his farm. He explained about the Ecuadorian Nacional cacao variety that grew on the land he inherited from his parents. He was a farmer by choice, and cacao gave him and his family a reasonable income.

Marika van Santvoort Pacha

Cacao juice is the best-kept secret among farmers. The sweet pulp is full of vitamins and nutrients, providing a natural energy boost. Through Pacha de Cacao, we are bringing to the forefront an ancient farmer tradition around the powerful cacao fruit to create a life full of boundless energy and a passionate, loving mindset in today's world -- Marika van Santvoort, founder Pacha de Cacao

I have been to many cacao farms, but here in Ecuador I experienced a level of pride, joy, and connection to the land I had not seen often before.

That day was hot and humid, and I was struggling to keep up. 

The farmer knocked off a pod from the tree and gave me the pulp to eat, adding, "It's good for energy​". Interestingly, these were the exact words that farmers in Cameroon, on the other side of the world, used to describe the pulp to me several years before. 

The next day, I searched online to find out what was inside the cacao pulp that provided the energy. That's when I realised that, besides a couple of lines somewhere hidden in a research report about the nutritious cacao beans, not much was ever written about the pulp. 

How could it be that this was neglected for so long? About a quarter of the cacao fruit is pulp, imagine the millions of litres that have been drained in the soil for so long!

In that same year, I decided to start something with the cacao pulp, which would become an additional source of income to farmers. The idea of a juice came later.

A different take on sustainability

After coming back to the Netherlands from living in West Africa, I started my first company Moving Cocoa, in 2014. It was an agency working on sustainability projects in the broadest sense of the word. 

Several of my customers were trading companies whom I supported with their sustainability strategy, coordinating projects on the ground, or raising funds. These projects were always about the beans, never about the pulp.

The accepted view on sustainability considers the notion that higher yields would lead to increased revenue to farmers. However, this is a one-sided view with reversed consequences, because the approach involves high financial risks and short-term income losses for farmers. It also takes a big toll on nature. Farmers tend to have small plots and low yields, in an attempt to increase income, they start to clear more forest land.

Many chocolate companies focus their marketing campaigns to consumers on the socio-economic situation of farmers, which is easier to explain, but not on the damaging impact of deforestation, which causes climate change and dire situations for plants, animals and people everywhere.

My view on sustainability started to change. 

Sustainability to me became about supporting farmers to take a more active and entrepreneurial approach. Providing tools that render the farming processes more straightforward, efficient, and faster, and showing that it's possible to step away from using agrochemicals to fight pests and disease. And last, but not least, about valorising a product that was until now considered waste in the supply chain: cacao pulp. This way, farmers can increase their income from the same trees.

Currently, we are working with a group of farmers in Ecuador. We are determined to increase the value for them and commit to a larger offtake of the pulp. Are we 100% where we want it to be? No. Will we get there? Absolutely!

Sustainability & innovation

Pacha de Cacao is a start-up company based in Amsterdam that creates an innovative product from cacao pulp in the most sustainable way.

Cacao juice is the best-kept secret among farmers. The sweet pulp is full of vitamins and nutrients, providing a natural energy boost. Through Pacha de Cacao, we are bringing to the forefront an ancient farmer tradition around the powerful cacao fruit to create a life full of boundless energy and a passionate, loving mindset in today's world.

We are proud to be amongst the first movers in the market. After an intensive two to five-year development process, Pacha launched in 2020. Our product has a unique and authentic value proposition, appealing to a growing consumer group with a health-conscious mindset.

We want to showcase cacao in a positive light, by celebrating its origin in South America as well as its role in nature and the health benefits it provides. We bring a fresh perspective to a very traditional industry that has been coping with bad practices and challenges such as deforestation, slavery and child labour. These are certainly issues we must address, however this does not show the full picture of the wonderful fruit that cacao really is, and the passion behind the people growing it as it is neither the only, nor the main story, about cacao.

By 2030, Pacha aims to become a global brand known for its innovative and high-quality products, bringing a higher income to farmers and spreading knowledge about the powerful cacao fruit.

The challenges ahead

Pacha de Cacao is a founder-led brand. This is both a strength and can be a challenge.

The strength is that the story is genuine and authentic. It is internally driven, and my career in cacao for over eight years has led up to this. It's the passion for cacao that drives me every day.

The flip side is that I put a lot of effort and long hours into it, and it sometimes feels like a lonely ride. I am a people’s person that loves to share and learn from others. The initial years of the company resulted in attracting the wrong people with different motivations. Nowadays, many people are charmed by the possibility of ‘becoming an entrepreneur', until the money dries up and there are no glamourous network parties to go to. Instead, you spent half the day chasing down lost parcels, doing admin, and cold calling new customers. It’s not glamorous at all.

It’s the muscle that says: "I don't know how to do it, but I will learn it and get this done​". Fulfilling my ambitious plans for Pacha, but also for my other company Gaia Cacao, means that I need to outsource work and pull in the right people. I feel lucky to count on an incredible network of people inside and outside the cacao industry.

You need to be set up for hard work, be flexible in dealing with continuously changing schedules and priorities, and get comfortable with rejection. 

I do that by making sure there is always a plan B and C, probably already in the making. Never wait for others but always keep going forward. I learned to say “no​”, even in times of opportunities, when our companies’ values are stretched. This recently happened with a customer, who, without notice, cut down our prices. It did not fit our company’s value of building a healthy, fair supply chain. Luckily most customers are supportive of our mission.

We offer an exciting opportunity for a financial partner to join our cause. And we call upon retail companies and others who, together, want to make the transition towards a real sustainable food system in cacao. If that is you, do reach out via email on uryyb@cnpunqrpnpnb.pbz​.

It will be all hands on deck in the years to come. But we won't stop until we have grown the market for a sustainably produced cacao juice that will benefit the farmers, nature and the wellbeing of consumers.

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