This story begins when we received a new member notification from a company called Allpa Kula. Every new member is a gift for us and we were excited to welcome our first chocolate maker in Myth! By researching more about what they do, I realized this interview was going to be close to my heart as it takes me back to my home Ecuador, a small country that possesses one of the most biodiverse ecosystems of the world due to the high diversity of natural species.
On a mission to promote biodiversity around the world, combining single-origin cacao, innovation, and transparency, Mayra and Felix founded Allpa Kula to give back what has been taken away from the planet and support the communities involved. Under the ethos of creating “Cocoa products for biodiversity”, they work to set the highest standards in each step of their production.
Adopting a sustainable model from cultivation to consumption that starts in the sourcing of cacao to giving back to the original land and hands who collect the beans – people who live in poor conditions and thanks to them, we can enjoy one of the most exclusive delicacies in the world. I had the pleasure to interview Mayra personally via video call.
I could feel her deep passion for her work while she took me on a virtual tour inside the lab, or as she says, ‘the place where the magic happens.
Here, we went on the step-by-step journey of transforming cacao into chocolate and it was fascinating to see how she uses creativity to make this complex, scientific elaboration in an artisanal and sustainable system. An interview that gives us perspective and above all, the strength to keep going and never quit until we reach our purpose and see evidence of the positive impact we are looking for. No matter what.
Hi Mayra, tell us a bit about Allpa Kula, what is your mission and where are you based?
The name Allpa Kula means ‘tierra del cacao’ in Quechua. It comes from Ecuador, the country where I was born and grew up until I moved to Europe for college. We are based in a small town in Zurich, Switzerland surrounded by nature where we produce chocolate manually in a small lab inside our house. Our mission is to produce cacao in a way that respects and preserves biodiversity while giving back to our society. My objective is to advocate and educate about the origin of cacao coming from Ecuador. Being one of the most prestigious cacaos in the world, it is very sad to see that today Ecuador is not that recognized for it because there have been so many alterations and ‘clones’ to make the product bigger in size and volume causing it to lose the natural flavor and aroma that defines our national cacao known as ‘Arriba’. Unfortunately, today most of the cacao harvests come from this clone that supports aggressive agriculture, harming the natural state of our unique cacao.
What inspired you to create Allpa Kula?
Ecuador is known for its wild nature and diversity and every time I went back, I saw fewer trees and more buildings. Part of my family still lives in the jungle and when I visited them in Quevedo, I was shocked to see how our beautiful rainforest transformed into big plantations and crops of palm, banana, and cacao.
One December two years ago, my boyfriend Felix and I went to the jungle and it turns out that during this time, the land was burned to make more space for plantations even though it’s the habitat of hundreds of unique species. It was at that moment when we decided to do something about it so we looked for plantations that use harmless harvest methods. That moved us to understand that it was possible to harvest cacao sustainably back to its traditional origin and this is how the idea of Allpa Kula was born.
Both of you come from different professional backgrounds and experiences, how was the journey of creating something completely unknown such as a chocolate brand?
Making chocolate and sourcing cacao, the way we do is very complex and we had no experience in this field. Felix is an artificial intelligence engineer and I come from commerce. It has been a turbulent journey, I started learning from observing and practicing. First I took a beginner’s course in Switzerland, and then I continued learning from online communities and forums. Later on, I went to a conference in Amsterdam where I met an admirable Ecuadorian woman who founded a company that is now one of the most recognized in the chocolate market. I wanted to learn from her so I offered voluntary help at the coming chocolate fair and this experience taught me a lot about how the chocolate world works. Here is when I discovered that this was my passion.
Then I kept practicing chocolate making on my own and during this time, I found a way to import sustainable cacao together with a distribution partner that is CO2 neutral.
After 2 years of working very hard to make this project a reality, we created Allpa Kula.
You have adopted an impressive sustainable model that goes from cultivation to consumption, can you share with us how does your production process works?
We work with cacao from Ecuador, the Philippines, and Madagascar with a unique origin denomination, which means that it comes from one single variety and region. It is cultivated in farming projects with sustainable procedures and contributes to local ecological biodiversity.
For importing this very specific type of cacao, we partnered with Silva Cacao, a distribution company that sources from farmers that harvest and treat cacao beans with a non-aggressive process. Apart from being CO2 neutral, they also have outstanding ethical practices to support the cooperatives of farmers in helping their local communities with education, advisory, and funding for improving their land fields and their harvest and post-harvest procedures.
Once we receive the raw beans, I make most of the process by hand myself, producing small batches in a small lab that Felix and I built with the equipment we need to meet the technical and sanitary requirements. We use a green energy system with 100% renewable resources.
The most difficult part of making chocolate is roasting the beans as the roasting temperature and timing are very sensitive as it is what determines the final flavor. Then, the process continues with breaking and peeling the cacao, then it goes on a stone grinder machine for 24 hours. Finally, I temper it manually placing it on a marble stone to reach the ideal texture and shine.
On the other hand, the packaging was also very difficult to get. There is no 100% sustainable material, so we wanted to find the most sustainable alternative and make sure that it meets our pledge.
We found a recycled grass paper supplier in Switzerland, a material that requires a lot less water amount than regular paper. We try to use local resources as much as possible as we want to be transparent on everything we do and make people know that we are fighting for a change.
You are a cacao ambassador who shows that producing high-quality chocolate with its traditional qualities while making a positive environmental and social impact is possible. What other projects are you working on?
Felix and I are passionate about biodiversity and nature, we are on a mission to educate people to be more conscious and consume more responsibly. One of my main purposes is to raise awareness about the origin of cacao. Switzerland is recognized globally for its chocolate but what people don’t know is that cacao originally comes from Ecuador and it has the purest and highest quality.
I am also planning to organize chocolate parties for kids with educational activities to teach them about the creation of chocolate as well as workshops for the wider public where I can introduce the ‘Tsachilas’. An indigenous Ecuadorian community who deserve to be internationally recognized for their incredible job at producing cacao naturally. With this in mind, I’m also starting to make products with coffee to reach a wider audience by working together with coffee associations that promote sustainable production. Coffee has similar agriculture and production process to chocolate, besides the industry faces the same challenges of social injustice concerning the living conditions of the local farmers.
Another project we are working on and the dream of Allpa Kula is to promote Biodiversity here in Europe. We see here the same environmental problems that are happening in the jungle such as Monocultures. Hectares and hectares of corn or cereals, which result in the lost of biodiversity. We don’t see many birds anymore when ten years ago it was common. We want to raise awareness about these concerns and show people that we have a global issue by working with projects and partnering with an environmental protection association to support farm practices that promote biodiversity.
There is still hope to change what is happening with climate change and we want do our bit, but also help people to do theirs.
Looking back at the journey so far, is there anything you would like to tell your past self that you wish you knew back then? A tip for the entrepreneur that is still thinking if they can do this!
I would tell other entrepreneurs and myself back then that the process will take time and not to give up. There were times when I was close to quitting but that was the easy way because there were and still are many obstacles on the path.
“We always have to have a deep purpose behind us to keep going. I think if my goal was only to sell chocolate, I would have given up already. My purpose is to make a positive impact and that is something that I have not yet achieved. I want to grow this initiative and be an example to the large corporations, make them see that it is possible to change and make chocolate differently. I know I have a long way to go but with this vision in mind, I won’t give up easily.”
Mayra Nuñez, Founder Allpa Kula
Finally, what part of being in the Myth community would you look forward most to?
For me, Myth is inspiration and encouragement. First, I like receiving the weekly newsletter with tips that are very useful for companies like mine. Secondly, be able to find in one place inspiring stories of other member entrepreneurs that have started their sustainable business and are working hard to make changes is the biggest inspiration I can find.
I also look forward to connecting and finding suppliers that share a common mission and work with our ethical and quality standards.