Beat, what did you do before you started working for YACAO?
I started my career with a commercial education background. At the age of 21, the company I used to work for at that time sent me to Latin America where I was supposed to stay for 2 years. At first, I worked in cotton and then moved to the coffee business. 35 years later, I still call this part of the world my home, and I have worked in all areas of the coffee supply chain. As the processes in coffee and cacao are quite similar and I was ready for some change, I accepted a new challenge at the beginning of 2018 and started working for YACAO.
What is the core activity of YACAO?
We buy our cocoa from small holder farmers here in the Dominican Republic, process it, and sell most of it on to our holding company PRONATEC. At the moment, 90% of our sales are organic, but we will increase this percentage even further in the near future. We at YACAO are in charge of the organic certification of the farmers, and we carry 100% of the certification costs. Apart from organic – EU, NOP, Bio Suisse and soon enough Naturland – we also hold fair trade and UTZ certification. Our farmers are organized in four regions, each of them have their own internal inspectors. The separation in regions also facilitates administrative and logistic processes.
How has YACAO developed since you’ve joined the company and what are your plans?
When I joined YACAO in 2018, we were working with 1,780 farmers. By next year, this number will be more than 2,500, and we want to have all of them certified organic by 2023. In order to manage this growth, we are investing in new, additional processing machinery to increase production capacity – it’s exciting times here! Nearly all the farms are family owned, with most plantations covering some 4 to 5 hectares. YACAO supports these small-scale structures and thereby makes it possible for many families to earn an income with environmentally friendly farming practices. At the same time, we have high demands when it comes to the quality of our products, and we have to meet our clients’ requests for transparency. This is why professional audit and quality management is key for us. The traceability of our products is already digitalized, we are continuously updating our ERP system and are very keen to use ICT like geotagging, QR-codes etc. to become even more transparent and efficient.
How did you learn about Group Integrity?
When I joined YACAO, the entire ICS was based on piles of paper documents filled in by the inspectors during their farm visits. The documents were collected in cardboard folders and every 1-3 month, these were sent to the administration office, where the admin staff had to type all the data into excel sheets. You can imagine the delay of information, the problems in reacting promptly to issues like violation of the code for organic production and the typos. Still, our products were of high quality and the demand was high, but it was very apparent to me that we could only keep up with our high-quality standards and grow our business if we made our ICS more efficient, more reliable, and more transparent. I therefore looked around which ICT tools were available and hence a colleague of mine came across Group Integrity, which seemed to fit our requirements quite well.
When did you start the transition to Group Integrity and what is your current status?
We started the data migration in December last year. Meanwhile, all data has been imported. All inspections of the last harvest, which started in April, have been carried out with Group Integrity. Our inspectors have entered their data directly in the online-based system. They use sturdy, water- and dustproof tablets with GPS access. We are still in some sort of “pilot phase” until the 1st of October – the inspectors have to get used to the system, and all the data still has to be double-checked for errors. From October, our ICS manager Katherine and her assistant are supposed to be the only back office support for our 6 inspectors. We are looking forward to making great use of all the up-to-date information that we will have at hand this way. For example, we count on being able to react much quicker to problems and violations that may occur in certain farms of the country. Already today, if a client reports a quality problem, our inspectors can be on the related fields within 72 hours to figure out what went wrong, but there is always room for improvement.
How is the cooperation with Organic Services?
Ever since we decided to use Group Integrity for our ICS, we have been in touch with the client managers from Organic Services – Patricia, Javier and Gemma – on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis. Frank and Gerald, two of the directors, have also been of great support. We are very pleased with Organic Services’ customer focus and their high level of proficiency and we know that other Group Integrity users feel the same way. Keep up the good work!
Which advice would you like to share with other grower groups and contract businesses who want to modernize their ICS?
The biggest lesson we have learned since we started looking into using modern ICT for our ICS is that we wished we had spoken to our certification body (CB) first, so that later on in the migration run smoother. Therefore, my advice is: Find out in the very beginning, which kind of reports and data your CB needs, and then figure out if the tool you want to use can provide what the CB requires. The next step is to let your tool provider, like Organic Services, analyze your data base, to check if the data can be migrated as it is or still needs some work done. After that, the migration itself should run smoothly and soon enough you will have an efficient, reliable, professional ICS management system that will increase your transparency and competitiveness. Also, invest a lot of time in training your field staff. The better you train them, the faster the ICS will perform at its maximum capacity.
We would like to thank Beat for taking the time to answer our questions and for sharing his experiences with Group Integrity. We look forward to getting an update about his further progress at the beginning of next year.