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Cocoa Diploma Offers a Path for Youth in El Salvador

Williams Saravia’s dream to help build his native El Salvador was dashed when he couldn’t afford to complete his architecture degree.

He instead took a job as a farm laborer to support himself, and later his wife and two children. Working from sunup until sundown, Williams, 30, labored mornings on somebody else’s farm for a daily wage of $6. In the afternoon, he farmed his own small plot of land.

He worked hard every day but still was barely able to support his family. The only way Williams saw to escape poverty was to emigrate to the United States. He made up his mind to journey north for work and send for his family once he was established.

Then, he heard about an opportunity at the university he once attended: a diploma program that would train young people in cocoa cultivation. It was a joint project offered by Lutheran World Relief through the Universidad de Oriente (University of the East, known locally as UNIVO). Williams applied and was accepted and is now part of El Salvador’s nascent cocoa value chain.

The graduates of the program recently filled an auditorium on the main campus of UNIVO in San Miguel to receive their diplomas certifying the completion of their studies. Wearing blue polo shirts emblazoned with the Lutheran World Relief and UNIVO logos, they listened to valedictory speeches by two of their fellow students before walking across the stage and shaking officials’ hands as they celebrated the possibilities now available to them.

Reviving El Salvador’s Cocoa Sector

The Diploma in Cocoa Management program is an effort to both bolster the emerging cocoa sector in El Salvador as well as boost employment among vulnerable youth in an area where they face daily dangers of violent gang activity and intense pressures to migrate due to lack of access to education and high unemployment, especially among rural youth. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of violence in the world, largely because of widespread gang activity. This violence, coupled with unemployment exceeding 50 percent among youth, are the main drivers of migration to the U.S.

The cocoa diploma program is part of Lutheran World Relief’s strategy to help revive the cocoa sector in El Salvador under the banner of the Catholic Relief Services-led Cocoa Alliance, funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Cocoa was historically an important crop in pre-colonial El Salvador, as well as the rest of Central America, but its production fell out of favor to the point where it was nearly non-existent. The Cocoa Alliance aims to reactivate cocoa production by positioning El Salvador as a producer and exporter of high-quality fine aroma chocolate. The cocoa revival is intended as a measure to reverse slow economic growth in the region, as well as a provide a substitute for the vast swaths of coffee lands that were devastated by plant diseases, such as coffee rust.

Through the diploma program, 116 young people have received intensive training in the basics of cocoa cultivation, including planting, pruning, grafting, organic fertilization and pest control, as well as techniques in cocoa production that include harvesting, washing, fermentation, toasting and using the product to make chocolate. In addition, the program offered life skills training, based on a curriculum developed by INJUVE (the Salvadoran government’s National Youth Institute) to build confidence, responsibility and job performance skills.

Creating Cocoa Entrepreneurs

The program also has an entrepreneurial component, encouraging the young participants to use their newfound knowledge of cocoa production to start small businesses, with the help of UNIVO’s Entrepreneur Center. Williams decided he would start a family business making cocoa tablets that are used to make hot chocolate. He buys the fermented cocoa beans, toasts them, grinds them and mixes them with sugar and spices to make a distinctive product. His wife, Margarita, and children, Williams, 11, and Merci, 6, help in making and packaging the chocolate tablets.

“The first day we made the tablets, we made around 35 of them. We finished around 10 in the morning, and by the afternoon, we ran out. People wanted more. They liked it,” he says. “Now we’re producing them almost every day so we can supply the demand.”

Some of Williams’ classmates have also been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Cesar Gaitan, 27 and single, was supporting himself by selling vegetables door to door on his motorcycle. Feeling that his life was at a standstill, he too was considering a trip north.

Today, after completing the diploma program, he’s building a new customer base for an organic fertilizer concocted from a formula he learned as part of the curriculum. The program opened another door for him: he just started studying on scholarship at UNIVO to become an agronomist, a degree that will take him five years to complete.

“The cocoa diploma changed my life. Even the way I think,” Cesar says. “Before, I didn’t have goals. But now I know what I want.”

Beatriz Villatoro, 28, attended a vocational college with the goal of working in the hospitality industry, either as a tour guide or at a hotel. But the tourist industry in San Miguel isn’t booming, and hotels are as scarce as her opportunities. For nine years, Beatriz searched for full-time employment, all the while wondering if her prospects would be better in the U.S.

The cocoa diploma program offered her another route. Being a city girl, she didn’t focus on growing cocoa. In the weeks before Christmas, while shopping for presents, she got an idea: she’d fashion chocolate bon bons that people could give as gifts. An instructor at the diploma program saw her enthusiasm and lent her some molds.

Soon, she was running her own business, Le Chocolat. “I was a little hesitant at first because I didn’t know how good of a business it would be,” she says. “But everyone was telling me how delicious they were and kept buying more and more.”

Beatriz is putting her profits back into the business, buying more materials and molds she will use to create custom chocolate for special events, like birthdays or baby showers. She dreams of one day owning her own shop.

“I Know There’s Opportunity Here in this Country”

Williams says his new business has improved his family’s life “enormously.” He has used the income to increase his savings as well as buy material for a new house that will enable them to move from the rental where they live now.

“I’m making three times the money I was before,” he says. “I get to spend time with my family. I’m not risking my life migrating to another country without knowing what’s going to happen, what’s waiting for me out there,” he says.

“This has gotten this migrating idea out of my head since I know there’s opportunity here in the country.”  

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