The weather is steamy, overcast and it almost feels like a tangible mist in the air. Not an uncommon scenario for what is arguably the second most humid and steamy section of Ecuador, after the Amazon Basin. The soil is damp, muddy, with evidence of a week’s worth of rain undeniable. There the five of us sat, strapped into our SUV, careening madly down a mud soaked embankment, headed straight for a large ravine. The price you pay for buying the promise of a true four-wheel drive vehicle and discovering upon arrival the reality of only a front-wheel drive vehicle. Still, I kept telling myself, this is exactly what you’ve always wanted to do. In fact, it is exactly what I have always done. On the cutting edge of real estate investment opportunities. The thought provided little comfort at the moment, as our out of control vehicle headed downhill fast towards what was then an uncertain conclusion.
However, best to tell the story from the beginning. My partner, Noelia, and I arrived at a swank Guayaquil hotel. Pure business class all the way. One of the best hotel selections in the entire country. Our clients, representing a serious global investment group, could afford such luxury. However, their trip was not a pleasure cruise. They knew what was in store for them and if for a second they forgot, I was sure to duly remind them with the subtleness of a sledgehammer to glass. They came in search of cacao farm assets. A frequent request, since the cacao industry is on fire…white hot. Especially in Ecuador, which was crowned as having the best cacao in all the world, at the 2013 industry awards. It was a routine request, but no two are ever exactly alike, so the routine fades quickly. They were prepared for an adventure, driving some fairly hazardous terrain, to get to the best cacao farm options. We didn’t disappoint them.
The two client representatives of the investment consortium piled into our rented SUV, so did Noelia and I, as well as the driver, a local with extensive knowledge of the roadways in “cacao country”. That’s why we hired him and his four-wheel drive…correction…front-wheel drive, SUV. We were prepared for the adventure, even if we got a bit more than we bargained for in the end.
We headed off on our investment mission. Ecuador’s soil is so fertile that one could argue anywhere can be cacao farming country. However, for optimal conditions, it is hard to beat the Naranjal to Machala corridor and the Babahoyo to Quevedo corridor. We were making a run for the latter, leaving the former for another day. Out stop off, central command post was the city of Vetanas. Port town on the Babahoyo River. We knew exactly what to expect. Our clients did not. They expected a lazy, sleepy, Mayberry-style hamlet. What they got was a mini-metropolis of commerce.
Ventanas doesn’t so much unfold in front of you, as it explodes all around you, upon entering. The sights, the sounds, the cacophony of activity. A busy port city by its own right. Vendors selling wares on the streets. Every third retail space, or so it seemed, filled with yet another agricultural product distributor, who for a fee – a large fee – will gladly get your product from farm to market.
Cacao distributors were especially visible. The two keys to a successful cacao operation in Ecuador: 1) Enhance the means of production to fit modern technology; and 2) Cut out the middle man and establish your own distribution network.
Today, however, was different. We had been in the same region earlier sourcing more new listings, to add to those already existing, in advance of out client arrival. There is no better source for market data on farms than the distributors who frequently talk to the farmers. We had promised several we’d stop by, say hello and introduce them to this new set of clients. We did just that, with offers of coffee and, naturally, chocolate the norm. It would be so easy to wile away a lazy afternoon just chatting with these extremely interesting gentlemen, with many a tale to tell. However, we were there for business, not RnR.
We promptly hit the road, stopping at one cacao farm listing after another. Driving through hectare after hectare of freshly planted cacao. Getting out time after time to walk the land and talk to owners or farm administrators. Some were pure cacao farms. Some were mixed agricultural product. Others combined cacao with separate cattle operations. Diversity was the norm.
We finally hit upon one farm which, while much smaller than targeted by the investment consortium, really caught their interest and attention. Perfectly maintained, with a sublime balance of freshly planted and ready to harvest cacao. The plants looked spry and very healthy. Almost no sign of disease or infestation to be found. The farmer was an organic grower, eschewing pesticides in favor of natural remedies. The owner, himself, walked us through shaded fielded, after shaded field of cacao plants. He would stop to point out the subtle nuances that only an experienced farmer, with a true love for the land, could accentuate. A first rate irrigation system could be readily seen throughout the 80 HA property. My clients liked it…were impressed…only wishing the site was larger, as it was less than 10% of the targeted initial investment they sought to make.
The one moment when I could see the investors’ eyes light up with that, “Now, we get it” look, was when the farmer cracked open several cacao bean pods so we could scoop out and eat the delectable innards. A gooey, white, liquidy mass encases the cacao beans, with a look and texture of melted marshmallows, only cool to the touch. Stick your fingers in the white goo, pull out a bean and…savor. The closest you will ever get to the taste of pure, pure chocolate divinity, in all its rawness and robust flavor. The best “fine dining” experience, for my money. Still, only 80 HAs and we were hunting bigger game.
Always save the best for last, even if you have to make a mad-dash, high-speed, 2-hour drive to get there, so you can spend some quality time prior to sunset. The jewel in the crown is what awaited our investor clients. Over 1,000 HAs of primo land, under a mixed use operation, but readily convertible into 100% cacao farming production. We made our way along winding, twisting roads of varying conditions, headed for cacao paradise.
Upon arrival, we were disheartened to hear that the owner would not arrive until the next day. We did not have the luxury of time. We asked the Administrator to give us an overview of the property. He was cordial and gracious. However, we could also see he was pressed for time and did not have scheduled our arrival, though the owner was aware of it for weeks. It was too large a farm not to cover it with some attention to detail. We asked for the Administrator’s suggestion. He assigned us a farmhand, who he made clear was wholly familiar with the farm, especially the cacao growing sectors. We headed off to the cacao fields, with our farmhand leading the way in a separate vehicle.
It didn’t take five minutes before we could note that the well-intentioned farmhand was, perhaps, not as familiar with the farm as the Administrator suggested. Well, not unless the short-cut was to drive through the side of a barn, at a dead end road. Our farmhand surveyed the land again, suggesting that he “zigged” when he should have “zagged”, but assuring us that this time he knew exactly where the right turn-off road lay, taking us directly to the cacao fields. Flash forward, the five of us careening down the mud-soaked embankment, headed straight for a ravine, in our front- wheel drive SUV.
As it turns out, the farmhand was 0 for 2. He took us to the top of a hillside which seemed to also dead end. Below us lay flat land and a ravine. He suggested that if we looked far enough to the left of the ravine, there was a passable clearing, which would take us to additional flat land, where off in the distance we could see the cacao fields. We should have seen the bad omen, when the farmhand suggested that he would need to return to the farmhouse and swap out his own truck for a newer and better one. He didn’t think he could drive down the embankment. However, seeing our brand new 2013 SUV, he confidently suggested that we would have no problem driving down the steep embankment. We queried about rain and mud. He assured us we would be ok.
Our driver – an exceptional and previously oft used driver – was a highly-skilled, adept professional. Still he struggled to keep control of the SUV as it skidded from side to side, unable to establish any traction on the loose, damp mud which lay beneath all four wheels. Our increasing speed was only dampened by a sense that our tires were sinking deeper into the “mud goo”. In essence we were hurtling, pretty much out of control, straight for the ravine – said ravine of uncertain depth. However, in one fell stroke of genius – with perhaps a high risk factor for roll – our driver swerved the wheel violently to one aside, forcing the previously perpendicular to the ravine SUV into a parallel position, which dramatically halted our slide, literally only yards from the ravine. That halt did not fail to impress us with one last evil lurch to the passenger side of the car, as we came to an abrupt stop, giving us a lingering feeling of having just been on a carnival tilt-a-whirl contraption.
At the end of the day, while occasionally cursing our well-meaning farmhand, we awaited his return and followed him into the cacao fields, where the scope of the farming operations and the quality of the harvest truly impressed our institutional clients. They had found exactly what they were looking for, even if the experience may have shaved a year or two from their lifespan. The return trip was filled with excited talk about economic possibilities and the retelling of our harrowing ordeal. Camaraderie was achieved. Spirits were high. The economic possibilities were endless. Ecuador rose to the occasion. She did not disappoint. As proof, in the whispers of daylight left, the clouds parted and allowed us to partake of a beautiful sunset. Life is good, in Ecuador.
Hector G. Quintana, CEO and Founder of Zen Global, writes with a certainty that demonstrates a thorough understanding of Ecuador that can only come from the personal experience of doing business in Ecuador for over 25 years. He’s a 30-year veteran of the international real estate industry, an asset management specialist, and a leader who is committed to social contribution, while retaining a surprisingly humble lifestyle. Hector is EscapeArtist’s Ambassador for Ecuador. Click here to read more from Hector at EscapeArtist Ecuador.