By Melissa Téllez Serrano, EL ESPECTADOR, July 6, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This innovative creation by campesinos in La Quitaz (Santander Department), has turned into a gastronomic jewel for consumers, and a demonstration of the resilience of a community that has decided to stop growing coca.
The District (corregimiento) of La Quitaz, in the Municipality of La Belleza, Santander, is located nearly ten hours from Bogotá. You take long roads without any pavement. There you find KKÚ, a factory where Sandro Salazar and his family create organic and artisanal products based on cacao. They include chocolate bars, hot sauce, jams, and their star, hamburgers made of cacao. This enterprise and its cacao hamburgers are part of the economic projects alternative to coca that these campesinos from Santander have developed. The question is inevitable: How did they get from growing coca to growing cacao? Where did the idea come from? How do you make hamburger out of cacao? How does it taste? How much does it cost?
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 95% of Colombian cacao is of very high quality; it’s catalogued as having “fine flavor and aroma” by the International Cacao Organization. In this country, cacao is produced in 27 departments, with Santander as the largest producer, as it provides more than 40% of the nation’s production. In addition, the cacao sector generates around 167,000 jobs every year, for nearly 65,000 Colombian families.
Specifically, Néstor Rojas, a member of the La Belleza Municipal Council, states that, given its variety of altitudinal gradients, La Quitaz is an excellent area for agricultural production, and that “cacao is the principal crop in the region, and we find that it’s replacing the coca crops we used to have.” In fact, even though, according to campesino Eudaldo Burgos, “the business of the coca came to this region in the ‘80’s,” and it was the economic sustenance for more than 20 years; dozens of families, like Sandro’s family, planted coca all their lives, as a way of subsisting economically. In this territory, the families have gone back to their cacao crops after the procedures of eradication of the illegal crops.
However, the process of substitution for the illegal plantings was not simple, and it resulted in a lot of impoverishment for the people living in La Quitaz. According to Eudaldo, “when they pulled out the coca, like in 2005-2006, there were five years in this region when the people didn’t know what to do. No money.” With the precarious condition of the roads, it’s difficult and expensive to get legal crops to the markets in the nearby towns. Eudaldo tried to substitute papaya for the coca, but he found out that “what used to fit in a backpack, he now had to load onto a truck, and take the risk that when I got there, they wouldn’t give me a good price, while the coca here was the subsistence and they paid you well.”
In the case of Sandro and his family, at first, for a short time, they focused on little bananas, and some bean bushes. Later on, during the pandemic, Sandro and his family got the idea of going back to the cacao crops on his grandfather’s abandoned farm. In Sandro’s words, “we said, let’s look for a cacao variety that will give us quality, and we won’t have to pick the beans and take them to a collection center and they take it away. No, what we’ll do is, we’ll transform it.”
Consequently, KKÚ is an attempt to get past the first stage in the economy, based on growing the cacao, going ahead to the second sector, where they carry out agro-industrial processes to transform the raw material. At the same time, Sandro and his family got the idea of making hamburger meat out of cacao during a meeting of the South Santander Seeds Network, and ever since then, they have been perfecting it.
The cacao hamburgers are made out of the central vein of the pod of the cacao, vegetable spices, corn flour, and salt. That means it’s a very natural product which, in addition, uses parts of the cacao pod that are usually thrown away. Sandro says that normally the cacao growers only use the beans of the cacao to sell, while he also creates products with the inner integument or endocarp, the central vein, and the vegetable mucus.
This provides more profitability, as a kilo of cacao beans has a price of around 8,000 pesos (roughly USD $1.91 at today’s exchange rates), while 290 grams of cacao hamburger are sold for 12,000 pesos (roughly USD $2.86 at today’s exchange rates). This way, using the central vein that would have been thrown away, KKÚ gains 50% more profit than by just selling the cacao beans, and this reduces the effect on the campesinos of international price fluctuations in the price of cacao.
This is relevant to the extent that changes in cacao prices could risk the income for the families in La Quitaz that depend on them, while the manufactured products assure them of more economic security, because the prices don’t show such pronounced fluctuations.
Sandro and his family are trying to broaden their market because they would like to reach new customers. Going through the Invima processes has been expensive, time-consuming, and difficult, which has limited their possibility of marketing on a larger scale. However, the potential of the cacao hamburgers as an export product is enormous, because, according to consultant Mordor Intelligence, the world market for protein is valued at around ten billion dollars, it has a high rate of return on investment, and its greatest growth is taking place in South America.
Therefore, because of their flavor, the cacao hamburgers are an exquisite and innovative option for vegans and vegetarians, and in general for anybody that loves fast foods. The cacao hamburgers have a texture and flavor similar to those made of meat, with a touch of spice. Besides their rich flavor, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation has said that cacao contributes to cardiovascular health, promotes digestion, and improves the condition of the skin. Martín Becerra, owner of the Santa Bárbara de Puente Naciónal Hotel and Restaurant (Santander Department), sells the cacao hamburgers at his business, and he says that, “people like them because they are something new and also because they are a very healthy product.”
In short, the cacao hamburgers are an innovative venture, profitable and delicious, that deserves to be tried out by everyone that likes a good hamburger. This product reflects the desires of a family and their community to get ahead by leaving the coca crop behind. In that manner, Sandro and his family are increasing the value of cacao as an insignia product of La Quitaz, using their ingenuity and making good use of all the components of the cacao.
 Invima is Colombia’s National Food & Drug Surveillance Institute.