As we drove out of the gates of Amber Cove, our port in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, we headed up the windy road, taking in the rich green scenery that surrounded us. We were headed to a place which was a dream for the kids on the bus, but also one for us adults too—Chocal, a local chocolate factory. Chocal is a local women’s co-operative that was started in 2007 to help give employment opportunities locally to over 20 women.
We all had images of tasty chocolatey treats and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as we pulled up to the local factory early on a Friday morning. The factory was created with the help of a government loan which helped them expand their factory, buy machinery and also generators, which allow the women to work even with the wonky Dominican hydro. Each employee earns minimum wage which equals around $170 USD a month, and with the help of volunteers like us from Fathom cruises, we help get some of that time consuming, tedious work out of the way so the expert chocolate makers can focus on making the actual chocolate.
When we arrived, we were immediately broken into smaller groups and brought on a tour of the factory. Once we got the play-by-play of each step that goes into the chocolate making process, we were then put to work in our groups. The first job for my group was to sort cocoa beans which are purchased from local farmers. We were shown by one of the ladies what to look for in good cocoa beans, which was that they couldn’t be flat or look too shriveled/dried up because this meant that there wasn’t much inside to work with.
After sorting piles of beans, we then headed to the station where we cleaned the cocoa nibs. Cocoa nibs are the “meat” of the cocoa bean once the shell is removed. At this station, our job was to take any bits of shells that may have made it into the nibs. After these two steps of sorting and cleaning, I quickly saw how helpful having us there could be to these women since both of these jobs were time consuming and tedious, yet necessary in the process.
Next we headed to fill the molds with yummy, liquid chocolate. I helped fill some mocha chocolate chip molds. After the whole group had completed their molds, the molds went off to the cold room to harden and we headed to the packaging station. The day I was visiting, we helped package small wrapped chocolates (bon bons) into baggies and label them. We had a production line going which made the process go by much quicker. So quick in fact that we were told that in just that one morning we had packed 1,200 bon bons!
The morning ended with of course, us getting to try the chocolate which was to die for, and then being given the opportunity to support their production further by purchasing some souvenirs to go in their gift shop. In just our morning visit, we were able to help the women of the factory sort 50 pounds of cocoa beans, clean 55 pounds of cocoa nibs and Chocal made $370 USD in sales in their gift shop—a record for that week!
I was scared that visiting a place like Chocal on my Fathom journey that I would feel more in the way of the workers than actually doing anything helpful, but even though you may feel like you’re slowing the process down, you are in fact, not. The sheer volume of having a group of additional workers helping the women with everyday tasks helps speed up production, which in turn, helps them make more profits because they have more chocolate to sell! I left Chocal with a full heart from the women I met, and feeling blessed to be given the opportunity to give back and help out an amazing organization.