International Confectionery’s Editor, Kiran Grewal, sits down with Camilo Romero – CEO Luker Chocolate for this month’s big interview, looking at the importance and history of Colombian cocoa.
Why is it important to uphold Colombian cocoa and chocolate?
The importance of Colombian cocoa lies in our history and culture. Farms across the country have cultivated this crop for centuries, distributing to all corners of the world. And it’s no surprise, because Colombia is home to some of the finest cocoa in the world – specifically, Cacao Fino de Aroma, a premium classification that makes up only 8% of the world’s cocoa.
Cocoa has the potential to foster sustainable wellbeing and peace in communities that have traditionally been hurt by violence and drug related conflict. Through cocoa, we can create employment opportunities and help communities learn about sustainable agricultural practices. By focusing on Colombian chocolate, we create value in our beautiful country and offer consumers around the world the chance to enjoy Colombian chocolate.
Is there a growing market for gourmet and high-end chocolate?
The market for gourmet and high-end chocolate is certainly growing. We’ve seen this trend particularly take hold during the pandemic, as more people have been enjoying luxurious treats at home.
The rise of health conscious and vegan consumers has also boosted the market, as many of the dairy free and natural alternatives are part of premium ranges. With this, we’ve seen chocolate increasingly used in many other high-end products – from desserts to protein bars – boosting the status of quality chocolate in the market.
How does Luker Chocolate support cocoa-growing communities? Why is it important to do this?
It’s important to us that we use cocoa as a force for good. We employ over five hundred people on our cocoa farms, and we buy half of our cocoa from small hold farmers and farming cooperatives directly.
By purchasing cocoa at a higher price, we’re able to ensure that the people behind its production have happier lives. We pay extra for quality, and provide added benefits such as training, planting material, technical assistance and education for all our cocoa farmers.
“Colombia is home to some of the finest cocoa in the world – specifically, Cacao Fino de Aroma, a premium classification that makes up only 8% of the world’s cocoa”
As part of our vision for a better future, we set up ‘The Chocolate Dream’. This is our collaborative sustainability plan focused on creating shared value in our communities. We invite clients, partners and even consumers to work together with the communities to help set up sustainable solutions to improve their wellbeing. This is how we can truly change lives through chocolate.
Is sustainability important to Luker Chocolate? How do you pioneer this?
Sustainability is central to how we produce cocoa. Whether this is supporting the local communities where we operate, or our efforts to protect the environment.
The Chocolate Dream drives dozens of projects that benefit communities. The Cacao Effect, one of our leading programmes which provides technical assistance to cacao producers’ associations to improve their technical, commercial and administrative capacities, has reached impressive results. For example, in the Urabá region, the project completed its five-year goal in just two years.
Importantly, the chocolate we produce goes further than single origin. Unique to Luker, the chocolate produced completes the entire process here, from farming through to carefully crafting our finished chocolate product. We call this crafted at origin.
What trends are you noticing in chocolate today?
We have found that lifestyle plays a major role in consumer tastes. Conscious consumers are actively seeking out healthier, more natural options that still deliver on taste. These consumers decide what goods they buy based on reputation, taste, quality and sustainability credentials. It’s important chocolate companies deliver across all these areas.
Another important trend is the use of alternative sugars. As a result, we’ve seen more interest in alternatives like coconut.
Why are consumers interested in clean label, transparent and sustainable chocolate in your opinion?
The market has become far more specialised. The rise of sustainability as a top priority political item has meant people are better educated on what to look for and what clean label means. Consumers are willing to pay more for healthy, natural products which have fewer ingredients or free-from. This translates to chocolate too.
Consumers want to do good. Readily available information on the importance of crafted at origin or cocoa farming communities captures consumers attention, translating into a fervent demand for sustainable quality.
What does your day as CEO of Luker Chocolate look like?
I spend my days working across the different areas of the value chain. One day I could be visiting the cocoa plantations and their surrounding communities, another I am in the factory, planning what’s coming next for the company. I love being out in the field, seeing how our cocoa is grown.
Running Luker is not like running a typical family business. We run Luker like a true corporation, but with our family values instilled into our culture. From the sourcing of cocoa to the development of our fine chocolate, it’s important every member of the Luker team feels equally respected, valued and heard.
I also work closely with the Luker Foundation – our charitable organisation. The drive from Luker and the capabilities from the Foundation combined means we can have a bigger impact.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
My uncle, a former Luker CEO always said that you should surround yourself with people with better capabilities than you. You can’t be an expert at everything. It’s important to make the most of those around you, drawing out new skills to build a better business.
How did coronavirus impact the business?
When the virus struck, we had to pivot our business to digital to keep things moving. As a result, our digital capabilities have been accelerated by about three to four years. On the field, we gave farmers tablets to track growth, yield and host education programmes. On the customer side, we have accelerated significantly in digitalising the customer journey and activating new commercial capabilities online. Whilst this has been transformational, we’re looking forward to welcoming our customers back to Colombia soon.
Beyond this, we have focused our efforts on protecting our employees’ health. We were able to fund vaccines for all of our employees and have made considerable efforts to adjust our protocols and working environments to keep our people safe.
What areas do you see Luker Chocolate focusing on and growing in the next few years?
Over the next few years, we will focus on a few areas in particular. Firstly, The Chocolate Dream. This will only grow as Luker does; as a sustainability platform that will drive better income for growers, strengthen the rural communities and their ties to their homes. This means increasing our coverage of farmers and communities and bringing in more partners to work with us.
Secondly, we will look to drive innovation in chocolate. The possibilities with chocolate and cocoa are endless. The demand for healthier ingredients, more functionality and indulgence are all areas we are pioneering. Finally, we hope to grow our presence in markets where consumers are demanding higher quality chocolates with a strong connection to origin and clear traceability.
Image credit: Luker Chocolate
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Editor, International Confectionery
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