These Afro-Latinas Are Revolutionizing the Cocoa Market

Afro-Latinas Cocoa BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Janett and Érika Liriano.

Historically, cocoa has always played an essential role in the lives of those living in Latin America. 

From the Aztecs to the Mayans to the Spaniards to today’s global markets, cocoa has always been valuable. While its cultivation methods from the colonial trade times have left farmers often in poverty, the future of cocoa could actually be that of an economic powerhouse for Latin American countries. 

This is the vision of Janett and Érika Liriano, two Afro-Latina sisters who have recently broken venture capital records for their redesigning of the cacao supply chain market that ensures ethical sourcing and fair wages to Dominican farmers.

“Latin America is rich in natural resources and food. We believe cocoa can be the catalyst crop that translates that wealth to the people and land,” the Liriano sisters told BELatina in an email interview.

The Liriano sisters were born in New York City to Dominican parents. Both Janett and Erika attended the Fame School in Manhattan, and both were educated in the performing arts, both technically and in dance, respectively. 

But as with everything in life, the questioning of structures opened up a completely different career path for them.

The Liriano sisters founded INARU, a vertically integrated cocoa company operating in the Dominican Republic. 

This is what they told us about their project.

How did the idea for INARU come about?

Erika Liriano: Like many Latin/Hispanic families, we grew up talking a lot about every possible thing in our household. Several topics that always came up throughout the years during family dinners and hang-out sessions were: 1. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country with many resources but not enough people who have the know-how to make something more of what is already abundant, 2. Climate Change and what can be done about it 3. The Interconnectivity of Seemingly disconnected things, and 4. The concept of Land of Opportunity.

INARU was born right before the pandemic. While I was working at Human Ventures, Janett was frustrating herself with fundraising for other startups (succeeding, though, just not happily).

I decided to pay more attention to my father’s cocoa farm. On a trip there, it hit me- there is so much opportunity here. Here’s this beautiful paradise with amazing people and rich food, and so much being overlooked, even by us. I got to thinking, what if we did something about this problem? What if we built an opportunity? I brought my findings and ideas to Janett and challenged her with these questions: “Aren’t you tired of talking about the issues of our times and tired of feeling like we are not really working to make OUR vision of what the future could be a reality? Aren’t you tired of working in businesses and in structures that continue to uphold the reality we don’t believe in? Let’s do something.” It wasn’t the most comfortable of conversations and challenges, but I know my sister — we are both people who have to put our money where our mouth is. 

What were the market structures that you knew needed to be changed?

Janett Liriano:  We saw two problems: First, the largest cocoa companies are reliant on a largely “invisible” supply chain that isn’t being appropriately compensated for the valuable work of collecting all of this cacao from distinct places on time, and producers are losing the full payment they should receive because of this. 

We became convinced that we had a choice before us: to do the easier-but-less-accurate thing of relying on others’ sourcing and claims around producer pay and farm/land reinvestment, or seek to make the changes in how our supply chain works through radical stewardship and building those direct relationships ourselves. 

The last opportunity we saw was the reality that 96% of Dominican cocoa is exported to be used by other brands overseas. We saw an opportunity and dream to create the same national pride and recognition France and Italy enjoys for the quality of their wine and olive oil, for the richness of our fine cocoa. 

So we decided, beyond all the fun supply chain transformation we sought to bring, to create a premium brand to export semi-finished and chocolate products. By bringing the brand “home,” we can offer our producers and supply chain partners a meaningful profit share.

What is the environmental and cultural impact of cocoa in Latin America? 

Erika Liriano: We decided to focus on cocoa for several reasons: 1. Environmental impact 2. Economic Impact 3. Historical and Future importance. 

Since most cocoa grown and sourced from Latin America comes from smallholder producers, who grow cocoa on a farm with several other crops, cocoa cultivation in Latin America has preserved the diversity of species and provides more nutritive soil. The baseline is decent, but what cocoa offers is an opportunity to improve and expand cocoa agroforestry and prevent the desertification of Latin America. 

Cacao is a friendly tree that cohabitates well with its neighbors and demands the diversity we need to be moving towards to reforest defensively against climate change. In the INARU profit share model, you don’t need to be a large-scale cocoa farmer to make a strong return- thus incentivizing maintaining these farms for the next generation. Agroforests also bring rain, secure soil, and balance water systems. 

Unlike other commodities, where there is a limit on how much you might make in a finished product (few folks would pay $20 for a cup of coffee but not think twice for a fine box of chocolates), cocoa has multiple, highly profitable products you can make from the same fruit. 

Cocoa powder, butter, and paste aren’t just used in chocolates. Cocoa is used in food, beauty, ice cream, nutritive products, and pharmaceutical development. By building a processing business and a brand and by guaranteeing a profit share to those we source our beans from, we give them an enhanced opportunity, even with limited volume, to earn above the poverty line. 

Additionally, cocoa and its products have a long shelf life, making it friendlier to trade. It’s Inaru’s vision to expand our smallholder verticalization into other cocoa-producing countries, like Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia, thus further expanding the positive economic impact cocoa-producing regions and people experience. 

Why is INARU’s work so important?

Janett Liriano: INARU is a business empathetically and consciously designed to evolve how we think about agriculture, food, and business. We are Dominican Americans who have raised over 1M in venture capital to invest in the promise and opportunity of our lands and people. We are less than 100 Latinas ever to do so. 

The Dominican Republic accounts for over 60% of organic cocoa exports. That’s a massive number for a small nation, and we believe both the market and people should know and benefit from that. 

We’ve partnered with over 500 farmers and established a multinational business in the Dominican Republic Free Trade Zone in less than a year. We’ve earned the support and collaboration from premier chocolate experts from Hershey to Vosges and are gearing up to get machines in our facility to be the first Dominican Exporter of 100% semi-finished and finished Dominican cocoa confections under a brand. 

We will be reintroducing the world to what the DR is: a rich, fine, abundant place that makes some of the sweetest chocolate in the world. When our first set of products launches, it’ll be a loving representation that we can create new agreements that enrich us all. 

How does INARU support the work of women farmers?

Erika Liriano:  INARU is really invested in making sure that we play our part in expanding the light shed on the demographics and reality of where our produce and cocoa come from — and want to make sure that women are not erased from that narrative. 

We actively seek out women-owned and run farms and work to make sure we can be the best partner we can be to their operations, business, and a value-adding exporter of the goods they produce.

Two women in the Dominican Republic that we are so excited to have met and know are Altair Rodriguez and Joanna.  Altair is laying some groundbreaking foundations for syntropic regenerative agriculture in the Dominican Republic so that other farmers can learn from her painstakingly detailed experiments on her farm. INARU seeks to support women like them (and the women who work on the many “men-owned” farms) by providing an exporter who can process and export their goods.

How can we support INARU’s work?

Janett Liriano: There are a few ways! Please sign up for our mailing list, where we will notify supporters of our first product drops so you can be the first to buy. 

If you are fond of a particular chocolatier or brand, use the power of social media to let them know about our magical beans and that you’d like them to try us out, and give us a like and follow on our channels to stay up to date. We love to hear from our community, so don’t be shy to engage with us there! 

Anything else you would like to add?

Janett Liriano: We don’t see too many models of success from our communities that are deeply representative of all the things we are. We are Latinas. We are Americans. We are Dominican; we are Black; we are women, sisters, New Yorkers, and so many things. And I want us to know we don’t need to edit ourselves out but synthesize the strengths of all those perspectives and decide to believe in those dreams we’ve all discussed around our kitchen tables. 

Opportunity isn’t just “out there;” it’s around us and in us if we choose to invest in our own value.

Building this business alongside my sister and co-creating with the passion of my family, my parents’ knowledge and contributions, and the largely Dominican contributors has been such a rich and authentic experience. The US is a land of opportunity, one in which we’ve been able to acquire the knowledge and capital that might have been hard to do back home. We can synthesize the two worlds we straddle to build something new and sweet to offer others.