By Eduardo Cortés
Since a very early age, I worked in the summers in chocolate factories, in the markets where chocolate was sold and in the fields where the raw materials grew. I developed a passion for chocolate and the production process. I come from a family that has been producing chocolate in the Caribbean through the family business Cortés Hermanos, processing cacao and chocolate since 1929 in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
As a result of those experiences, I felt a profound desire to get involved in agriculture and a great nostalgia on realizing that the Puerto Rico where I was raised now lacked the agriculture that my grandparents and parents grew up with. With the identity of being the fourth generation of my family to manufacture chocolate, combined with my desire to get involved in agriculture, I began to explore my God-given tools to become involved personally and professionally through Forteza Caribbean Chocolate.
Since its beginning in 2014, Forteza has always had the goal of developing the cacao and chocolate industry in Puerto Rico. In my case, as the brand’s founder, I was determined to support economical and ecological sustainability. For example, we try always to buy from local suppliers and to avoid the use of plastic when possible.
To say that it has been a difficult path would be an understatement, considering that the island has a social and economic history that would make an agro-business person in the 21st century opt for just about any other route. Moreover, since 2017, we have faced hurricanes and earthquakes that have infringed on and continue to infringe on the hope and enthusiasm of Puerto Ricans to persevere with ideas and projects. It could take up the entire 2,000 words that I have been given to write this article to comment on the challenges, but to talk about more inspiring themes like chocolate and God’s will, I will sum up these challenges as…an economic policy that practically excludes agricultural development, the lack of an agricutural ecosystem that streamlines and makes easy the development of new proposals for local food products, a culture of sales and consumption that is highy focused on support in favor of imported products rather than local goods, not to mention two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, the worst earthquake in a century in 2020 and the new world pandemic of Covid-19.
The social and economic challenges related to the small quantity of agriculture on the island, plus the additional challenge of convincing consumers to pay three and four times the price they are used to paying for chocolate means we needed to focus on quality and the development of good relations with the actors in the value chain. The challenges related to the events of hurricanes, earthquakes and the pandemic, since they were totally unplanned, have been and are handled as they come, based on years of accumulated knowledge.
With respect to agriculture, the most important aspect has been the continued and direct development of our relationship with the farmers. Using our experience with Cortés Hermanos and the cacao industry in the Dominican Republic and the generation of two proposals of the USDA Specialty Crops Grant, we are ensuring that participants’ farms have the necessary conditions to continue their cacao harvests, and we have managed to subsidize half the costs of a total of 22,000 trees grafted for the farmers. In Forteza, we decided to assume the responsibility of supporting the farmers directly, looking for new strategies with them and with government agriculture entities in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the United States. Today we feel thankful and blessed that we can say that in Puerto Rico farmers have easily accessible knowledge on how to plant cacao; genetic material for high quality and available crops; a network of several farmers who are learning, planting, producing cacao and even sometimes marketing their own chocolate thanks in part to this affinity we have managed to develop along the industry’s supply chain.
Hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017 in Puerto Rico represented a watershed moment for the project. That year many cacao farmers began to see the first productions of their harvests and we had projected the second line of innovative flavors of Chocolates Forteza for the end of the year with which we expected to double our sales and the demand for local chocolate and cacao. Clearly the destruction caused by the Category 5 hurricanes held back our plans, but thanks to a genuine interest in supporting our employees and suppliers, perseverance in the face of adversity and above all the favor of God, our plans were not done away with.
At first, we took advantage of the weeks we had been held back because of lack of electric energy to carry out general maintenance on the factory and an assessment of the impact on the farms to begin to develop initiatives for recuperation. The plan to introduce a new line of Forteza products was maintained and carried out before the end of the year and we felt satisfied to have fulfilled the responsibility of being examples of perseverance and hope. Finally, in spite of the climactic challenges, in 2018 we achieved various goals to double our sales with the new launch, to increase the income from Puerto Rican cacao and the approval of a proposal to distribute 12,000 trees for the recuperation of the affected farms.
To successfully achieve the goals of the brand, the products of cacao and chocolate should meet an optimum standard. To combat the high costs of agriculture and manufacturing on the island, we were faced and continue to face the need to search for innovative mechanisms to increase the attributable value of the product and the brand. To overcome the social and economic factors and prosper with the project required developing good relations with the entire value chain in the process from the farmers, employees, government agencies, packaging suppliers, consumers and communications media. The quality and good relationships with our associates was and continues to be the way in which we distinguish ourselves in the market and to be profitable.
To work with quality requires paying great attention to the elements of sustainabiity, ethics and social commitments, aspects that God has made me recognize that in circumstances of less adversity, I would have not been able to see, attend or get involved. In a society like ours today, we generally attribute quality to elements that are physically perceptible to us immediately. We tend to measure the quality of products that appeal to us through the senses and economically, their marketing, who uses them, and other factors that their producers can resolve with budgets that determine the capacity to add or subtract this instant value from the product.
Now then, sustainability frequently is not considered in what we consider to be quality because its impact is only reflected over time and distributed throughout the value chain. Its involvement is not physically perceptible in an individual manner, although we are generally disposed to recognize its value, but we do not consider it as part of the quality of the product. From its inception, in Chocolate Forteza, we have made an effort to attend to and balance these two aspects of quality, and thanks to persistence in this work, we have managed with our associates to develop this complementary relationship so necessary to face initial challenges and to define a product that is sustainable over time.
I have had within my reach a good knowledge of the process of chocolate making through my direct work with processing, a network of resources and technical support with much experience, cacao and chocolate processing equipment available with relatively little investment, parents who have supported me in my projects, financial means to make the necessary investments and many other blessings. In spite of all these favorable elements, it’s important to emphasize that from the beginning, the project was undertaken considering the most effective and efficient use of all the resources to develop the brand and promote the cultivation of cacao in Puerto Rico. This element of effective administration was and continues to be key for the project’s success and the development of a culture of efficiency.
After 2017, in Puerto Rico, we can say we live “waiting for the blow” of the next hurricane season. The memories of the destruction of Hurricane María have left a psychological impact on those of us who lived through it. In this year 2020, we once again experienced the great power of nature when in January over the course of weeks, several destructive earthquakes shook the island, including the most powerful one in about a hundred years. Combined with the pandemic of Covid-19, this year has been another one of great challenges. The impact of these unforeseen events has caused a considerable decline in our sales. However, with much faith, we have maintained our operation with optimism and confidence that the roots that have been sown for the brand are sufficiently deep to be able to persevere. Although the final impact of what we have lived through in 2020 is yet to be seen, we are actively looking for alternatives that will allow us to find and capitalize on the opportunities that these challenges represent. With the determination to keep progressing, the desire to increase the demand for Puerto Rican cacao, and taking advantage in the drop of sales for 2020, we are planning to implement the exclusive use of local cacao for the production of Forteza on the island. Clearly the God-given circumstances have opened the door to keep on fulfilling our project’s goals. We can only trust.
Eduardo Andrés Cortés Shehab is a agro-businessman from Puerto Rico. He is currently vice-president of operations of Cortés Hermanos. He lives most of the time in the Dominican Republic and visits Puerto Rico to attend to cacao cultivation and the Forteza brand on the island. Since 2019, he has developed a marked devotion marked by Christian faith and hopes that this faith will serve as the principal tool for his personal and professional development.