We talked to Germán Santillán, Founder of Oaxacanita Chocolate, the first chocolate shop in Mexico that works directly with marginalized and proudly indigenous Mixteca Oaxaqueña communities to produce artisanal chocolate. This is what he said:
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Germán Santillán: We are doing everything to keep our spirits strong, we never imagined how far this situation would go in Mexico, and unfortunately, we have lost some members of our family to Covid. Living during the pandemic in a rural area has been difficult not just for us but also for the people in general, from the quality of information we have received about COVID-19 to accessing decent healthcare system. After the bad times, we have dedicated more of our time and actions to this planet, and hopefully, we will keep creating an impact in the Mixtec Region of Oaxaca, where we are currently working.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Oaxacanita Chocolate.
Germán Santillán: I live in a beautiful village called Villa de Tamazulápam del Progreso in Oaxaca State, Mexico. My hometown belongs to the Mixtec Region of Oaxaca, a region that preserves its traditions and indigenous cultures.
I have a Business Science Degree and different Social Entrepreneurship and Leadership studies from the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA) and The Millcer Center for Social Entrepreneurship (California, USA).
I decided to start Oaxacanita Chocolate because, after a 2-year process of studying the chocolate culture in my region and the opportunity of Traditional Mexican Products in foreign markets, I decided to create a social business model that can create jobs in my region for people living in poor conditions as we are considered the poorest region of Mexico.
How does Oaxacanita Chocolate innovate?
Germán Santillán: We are the first Social Chocolate Company in Mexico that is working directly with proudly indigenous communities of the Mixtec Region of Oaxaca from the cultivation of cocoa, the production of chocolate, and putting it in the market the final product, empowering a productive and a collaborative chain that involves the work of cocoa farmers, traditional women cooks, and palm artisans. We combine technology to connect our communities and products with our clients and embracing our culture, we are creating a way to take care of the social, environmental, and economic development of the people that work with us and our region.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Germán Santillán: It affected our plans to open a place in Mexico City or Oaxaca City, as we are located very far from the big markets, one of our main challenges has been the way we reach new customers, we can say that thanks to the pandemic, social media and e-commerce became more relevant in Mexico and with this we have been able to connect with more clients that probably can’t travel, but that want a little piece of Mexico and Oaxaca in their houses. With the pandemic, we also created some e-tastings and conferences where we share with our clients our story, the way we are currently working, and the way we use chocolate in the Mixtec Region of Oaxaca as a social union product for more than 3,000 years.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Germán Santillán: Yes, in the beginning, we needed to split our team, to stop our activities for two months just not to get any person sick, we had the need to talk with every team member and stop making personal visits to the communities we are working with. We had the chance to talk with the sons and daughters of our collaborators to help them use mobile phones to stay connected. One of the biggest lessons learned was that as a Founder, I need to take special care on communication transparency inside the organization. Our collaborators understood the difficult situation we were currently living in, and they were ok with the decisions of probably not working at the same level we were last year. Thanks to them we can say that nobody was fired and one year after we are very happy to keep working on the project.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Germán Santillán: We started a fantastic relationship with Facebook in 2019 when they selected us as their success story worldwide (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVpGLXCGqn0&t=16s&ab_channel=Oaxacanitachocolate) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peL0tzkwzto&t=37s&ab_channel=Oaxacanitachocolate), and thanks to their tools, we have been able to support our activities during the pandemic like Whatsapp Business, Messenger, Instagram, Facebook, they have helped us with free credits to make adds about our work, and we feel very blessed for that. Also, ZOOM has been a fantastic tool for our e-tastings and conferences to maintain a close relationship with our customers.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Germán Santillán: In Oaxaca, we have some local chocolate companies that are located in the City of Oaxaca and some local competitors around, we plan to stay in the game by boosting our online presence and also to keep growing our alliances to remain more relevant in our activities, we are very proud to share that our chocolate is very special in Mexico not only by its quality but the way it is impacting people’s lives. We have been awarded by the Former President Obama and the US Government as one of the best social projects of America and by The International Youth Foundation as one of the best 20 entrepreneurial projects of the world. Lastly, we are very proud to share that our work was recognized by TED, and I was named a “mind that is changing the world” in the TED Fellows Program during 2021 because of our work with chocolate and indigenous cultures (https://blog.ted.com/meet-the-2021-class-of-ted-fellows/)
Your final thoughts?
Germán Santillán: We are delighted to receive the invitation to participate with startup.info! And we want to let people know about the huge importance of social media to face this global pandemic, to support our communities, and to try to build, little by little, a better world for all! We are at your service in the Mixtec Region of Oaxaca, and if you want to try our chocolate in the USA or Canada, please take a second to write us directly!
The world will be better only if we as human beings take a chance to think about others and practice good values to support each other.
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