April 7, 2013 – In the indigenous Ngobe community of Panama, everything revolves around chocolate. Cacao trees fill the deep jungle landscape. Hot chocolate is served with every meal. It’s consumed by cacao farmers during the workday and handed to guests upon entering a home.
This integral relationship with cacao made a big impression on Adam Armstrong when he lived with the Ngobe as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2010 to 2012.
“They traditionally use it as a drink to help them get through the day,” he says. “I thought it was strange at first that they would use a hot drink that I associated with being a dessert to drink during some of the hottest temperatures I’ve ever been in, doing some of the most backbreaking work I’ve seen. Then I did a little studying and found that hot chocolate—the way that they consume it—has a lot of properties that actually give them energy and is pretty healthy.”
Unlike the hot chocolate many of us are familiar with, the Ngobe recipe uses the whole cacao bean rather than cocoa powder. “It’s this minimally processed hot chocolate, containing high levels of something called flavanols, that helps the blood flow the body much better, increases alertness, helps your heart out, and, as you may have heard in recent news, is being used with Alzheimer patients to help with memory,” he adds.
Since returning from the Peace Corps, Armstrong has been on a mission to bring Ngobe-style, ethically traded, stone-ground hot chocolate to the Santa Cruz area. Named Mutari Hot Chocolate LLC (“Mutari” is the nickname the Ngobe gave Armstrong during his stay), his company is now in operation out of the Front Street Kitchen in downtown Santa Cruz. And it’s generating quite a buzz. Mutari launched a fundraising campaign on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter on March 31 with the goal of garnering $10,000 by May 18. By Sunday, April 6, supporters had pitched in more than $16,700.
“We got way more attention than we thought we would,” says Armstrong. “People spoke out about the project and it became so popular that Kickstarter put it on the front page as their ‘Staff Pick of the Day.’ It’s been incredibly validating and I’m happy to see so many people as passionate about real hot chocolate as I am.”
The funds will go toward obtaining a bigger space, investing in larger equipment, and hiring a staff member. Notably, “These funds will also allow us to import cacao directly from the growers and co-ops in larger quantities,” says Armstrong.
At the heart of Mutari’s mission is the desire to go beyond “fair trade” and truly connect with and empower the farmers. While living in Panama, Armstrong was struck by how little certified “fair trade” cacao farmers earned.
“I think that when people see ‘fair trade’ they think that they are handing the farmer a significantly [higher] amount of money for their product, and this may be the case [in some situations],” he says, “But for the whole of Panama I can safely say that the label ‘fair trade’ is not pulling anyone out of poverty any time soon. … There is something wrong there when the farmer sees so little of the final profit and does so much of the work.”
Armstrong is tapping his Peace Corps connections to identify communities around the world that use the “agro-forestal” organic growing method, cultivating cacao under the forest canopy much as it occurs in nature. He’s also working with a cacao broker that “goes above and beyond the standards” when it comes to ethical trading.
The Kickstarter campaign will support Mutari’s efforts to get on the ground to coordinate and foster these connections. Armstrong, himself, will spend the summer working on this in Central America.
“This all translates into getting even more money to the farmer,” he says.
Visit the Kickstarter campaign to contribute, and learn more at mutarichocolate.com. Mutari products are currently only available at Artisan’s Gallery on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, at Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola, and through donating to the Kickstarter campaign.
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist living in Santa Cruz, California. In this fruitful region and beyond, she finds the intersections of food, ag, health and the environment to be the most intriguing realms to write about. A bookworm and vegan foodie, the San Diego native has lived in Santa Cruz for a decade, relishing its redwood forests, fresh produce, delicious wines, and sparkling sea.