Starweek Magazine

The Cacao Queen

Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Growing up on a farm in Batangas made Josephine “Jophine” Villegas-Ramos think of pursuing a career in agriculture, as she knows we all need food and, if approached smartly, she figured that a career in agriculture or in a food production  business would be a sure winner.

There was no one who was working on cacao. The year was 1991-92. She knew she had to find like-minded associates with whom she could pursue her dream of using a strategic approach in increasing dissemination of technical information and farming practices with as many people as possible. She studied and did field research and gathered her contacts.

Her efforts paid off when a USAID-backed project called SUCCESS (Sustainable Cocoa Extension Service for Smallholders) Alliance Phase 1 was started in the year 2003. Yes, she waited a good ten years but her younger days in Sto. Tomas, Batangas growing up on a cacao farm would be her entry into being part of Davao’s most successful cacao production program to date. She then worked with the cacao stakeholders in Calinan and nearby towns where cacao now grows well – and where today’s successful cooperative Subasta comes from; where Malagos chocolates come from; where Theo and Philo gets its cacao beans.

When she holds seminars in conferences sponsored by the Departmentof Trade and Industry or Department of Agriculture, the room bursts at the seams with farmers wanting to know more about cacao, how to make their beans get better value, how to plant new varieties, and more. I was witness to a DTI event at the SMX convention center where even I (considering we are good friends) could not get a seat at the seminar.

With Jophine you could talk cacao all day and all night. We traveled to Guatemala under the sponsorship of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) which co-sponsored our visit to the coffee and cacao producer of Central America at an IWCA event. Wanting to make our stay more fruitful, we rented a car and drove to Chichihuatenango and to Antigua (where the famous Guatemala Antigua coffee comes from) where we saw organic coffee farms and cacao places as well. All along, Jophine taught me about cacao. Day in and day out.

We had cacao to drink at truck stops and cacao and coffee at tourist stops, too. This was when we were finishing our book called “CACAO: Bean to Bar” which our publisher Anvil wanted to launch in a few months. After that Central American trip, we were ready to launch and the book was out in June 2013. It was her first publication of a trade book, but not her first paper on the cacao bean.

As we stopped in San Francisco to catch our flight home, Jophine arranged for us to go to Guittard Chocolate Factory to meet the owners and to talk about exchanging planting materials between the Philippines (they know we have heirloom varieties) and the global body doing research on cacao seeds and seedlings.

A final stop at Ghirardelli Chocolate and Ice Cream Factory wrapped up our cacao tour in the West Coast. There, Jophine showed me the machines we need to produce better chocolates, at least on a small scale. While Guittard’s equipment is for the mainstream big chocolate players (which is a dream not too far fetched), Ghirardelli’s tourist version is what small scale producers can use. We looked wistfully as the machines ground the cacao beans and turned them into liquid chocolate right before our very eyes.

“This is all we need,” she points out to me, with the same passion in her eyes when she talks about tasting fresh cacao fruit and asking me to chew its flavor.

She is one busy woman – traveling to project sites and pilot farms which she has founded around the country. There are cacao farms in Batangas, of course, and nearby Bicol. But there are more in Mindanao and she is forever hopping from plane to bus to truck.

Truly, she is a rare find – someone so passionate and so truly dedicated to the resurgence of the cacao industry in the country. She believes we Filipinos can be very passionate about improving our chocolate production and we can succeed at adding value instead of merely selling the cacao beans as raw materials, which our industry now does because most of the produced cacao is not sorted for quality. At least until Jophine gets to that place, anyway.

She is one with the other quality producers – Malagos and Subasta – to teach cacao farmers how to get better results. Choose your planting materials. Know how to ferment, if needed. Know your varieties of cacao.

To date, we are still underproducing this cacao bean. And with the little we produce, there are women like Jophine who teach farmers how to be sustainable and how to reach specialty markets.

Here’s a toast – a cup of the finest tsokolate, of course – to you, partner, because you have made and continue to make a difference in the cacao industry. For Filipinos to be able to eat better local chocolate. For farmers to get better prices for their crop, so that the industry will be more sustainable. And this is success – real success – on top of the program with the same name.

But like me, Jophine is looking for younger people to teach and maybe inspire with our advocacies. In her little farm in Sto. Tomas, she now has a pilot farm, and some equipment. Someday, this could be the “Ghirardelli” factory we were talking about, so she can teach and train the next generation of cacao and chocolate lovers. And keep our heirloom varieties and sell them to the world as the best chocolates that they are.


Cacao: Bean to Bar (Anvil, 2013) is available at National Bookstore, Powerbooks and online at www.anvilpublishing.com. E-book version also available. You may reach Jophine at [email protected] or the author at [email protected]











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