Feb. 4, 2015

Gabriel León Roig Alfaro

Dominican Republic

Gabriel León Roig Alfaro

Vice-President—Export, Roig Agro-Cacao S.A.


Gabriel León Roig Alfaro was born in 1972. His early studies were at Carol Morgan School in Santo Domingo. He graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in Science and Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been in the cocoa business for more than 20 years, and is currently Vice President of Roig Agro-Cacao SA.

Founded in 1967, Roig Agro-Cacao, S.A. soon became one of the country's leading exporters of cocoa beans and one of the largest organic cocoa exporters in the world. What factors led the company to claiming its position?

From the outset, our key strength has been the ability to establish relations with farmers, the suppliers, that stretch back for generations. I started my professional life in the main cocoa growing area of San Francisco de Macoris. It took me eight years to establish these relationships and a climate of mutual trust.

In 1998 we suffered hurricane George, prior to which most of the beans exported from the Dominican Republic were of the Sanchez variety; a non-fermented bean. Essentially starting from scratch after the hurricane, we started experimenting with fermentation. Considering we are a low volume country compared to the African producers, and in the interests of competitiveness against far larger players, we set about fermenting to attract high quality companies, mainly in Europe and Japan, where we could enjoy better differentials, and better margins, which translates into better prices for the farmer—in short, positively impacting the entire chain. That was also where we entered the, at the time embryonic, organic market.

What key steps should be taken to boost the development of the Dominican Republic's cocoa industry?

From my point of view today there are two key aspects to consider. We need to improve our genetic material, which we are already at work on. We embarked on this both at a private and government level and the results have been highly encouraging. The minister has extended full support.

Another key consideration is the need to improve sanitary controls at airports to safeguard against diseases. We are working to develop an emergency team to undertake this responsibility, and we are in the process of developing protocols on how to handle emergencies.

What are Roig's medium-term development strategies and objectives for 2015?

Currently, we are squarely focused on quality. As for the future, there are different steps to be taken, one being to experiment further with flavor. In the fermenting process the yeast that affects the flavor of cacao is in the pod. And if you are able to identify the specific yeast that promotes a specific flavor, be it the floral aroma, the nutty or the plum flavor, and you are able to cultivate that yeast, you reproduce it and pour it over the cacao during the fermenting process, which can have interesting results. That is one plan we are working on.

Plan II we started two years ago, when we built a distillery operation at the factory. What we are doing is collecting the pulp and juices from farms and other operations. When you ferment the beans, all the material drains out through specific piping. It is pasteurized, distilled, and exported to the US. We and our local partners are partnered with a US company called Solbeso that is promoting and distributing the product. They have developed the brand which is currently being sold in New York, Miami and, soon, in London.

The idea is to transform waste into revenue. It will also lead to additional income for the farmer, and seems to have some potential, being a beverage made from 100% alcohol derived from organic cocoa beans. In nature it resembles something, I would say, between tequila and vodka, and is flexible enough to use in a wider range of cocktails such as margaritas.