Today, when you set foot on the grounds of the cooperative Red Guaconejo, you will smell cacao.
That's what it takes to get an organization that is completely tirado al suelo (thrown on the floor) up and running. And we're still pretty far from the end of the tunnel.
When I got here in November, the Cooperative Red Guaconejo was totally closed. Gates shut. A couple days a week there were people working in the tree nursery, but not much movement. For many of it's members it pained them to even enter the premises after the crisis that happened there. The gates were overgrown with weeds, cacao dryers empty and fermentation boxes dirty and full of trash. It pained me to see it too after seeing all of the publicity that they had gotten. They were the poster child for direct trade organic cacao of extremely high quality.
We knew the old administration had to go. At the end of November we had the coop's first ever assembly which should normally happen once a year. The members were informed and the gate were opened. A new board of directors was elected. First step to getting the place open.
After naming positions on the board and starting to have weekly meetings, we slowly began to piece things together. We sent in the request to have the signatures on the bank account changed (horrific process that's still not over) and cleaned up the grounds. Getting the office turned over to the new board was a chore. No one knew where anything was and it was a total mess.
Meanwhile the development organization from Nagua that was supposed to be supporting the coop (SODIN) blew apart at the seams, causing issues with administration at the coop. The administrator was accused of stealing money from projects and then resigned. My project partner (employee of SODIN) who is the accountant and sales manager for the coop was left unpaid. In January the administrator of the coop disappeared to the US for a month and then came back to announce that he would be leaving the project too.
At the end of December our "security guard" was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road, gun stolen from him while on duty. Naturally he came at us for money right away. Money that we did not have.
With his demands came forward the old employees who had been screwing the coop over for months charging monthly for work they were not doing, demanding the money we owed them. The place was closed! There was no one working there!We needed a secretary really badly in order to keep the doors open. When we asked the old one to come back she laughed and demanded the money she was supposedly owed.
Needless to say, at the end of December I was feeling pretty hopeless. Things were not looking good. I sent an email to the owner of Taza Chocolate explaining what was going on and felt like crying after.
January 14 IMOCARIBE, the organization that does our organic certifications informed us that we were months behind on turning in the inspections of the cacao fields. We had to get them turned in by the end of January or there would be no certified organic cacao to export from La Red. Somehow we got an extension and completed them. Now we're just waiting for the inspector to come out and approve it. The was the first glimpse of hope that we had seen in a very, very long time.
Mid January we turned some profit from the nursery as the trees were finally mature enough to sell.
Then in February we had one of the trucks for the project converted from gasoline to propane. This was one of the best ideas we've had so far because our biggest expense was gas for the trucks. In the middle of the month I met Ariana, a 21 year old accounting student who was willing to work as a secretary for free until we could pay her. It was the break we needed. Although we had very little money to buy cacao with, if we had the doors open the people could at least see that we're there.
That same week my project partner and I sat down with the guys who go into the fields to buy cacao to make a plan for purchasing. We went community by community estimating how much cacao they could buy each month of the harvest. With this in mind, we could then budget how much profit we need to make right away to be able to have enough to keep buying.
We took out 75,000 pesos and sent the guys into the communities to buy. It's not much, but we are buying and selling conventional (not organic) cacao locally and very carefully calculating the cost-price ratio to make sure we make some money to keep buying and handle our expenses.
I know it's not much, but it's progress.