Apicoop, miel y arándanos, Chile

Chino ha dirigido la cooperativa chilena Apicoop a través grandes desafíos, incluyendo la diversificación de la miel a los arándanos y, más recientemente, una erupción volcánica que arrasó con una porción substancial de sus cultivos y que pudo ser fatal para algunos de sus panales de abejas. Este desastre natural no se trata de un incidente aislado, pues Apicoop enfrenta continuamente la adversidad de la naturaleza tales como frecuentes terremotos y erupciones volcánicas.

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Chino, el gerente general, afirmó:

“Nuestro negocio no se trata de miel ni de arándanos, sino de personas. Los apicultores están enviando a sus hijos a la universidad. Esto es el resultado de los ingresos de la miel y los arándanos y se constituye en el verdadero significado del éxito”

Miel, arándanos y sueños

Chino enfrenta estas dificultades frontalmente y explica que ellas son una forma de vida. Él afirma “Nosotros perdimos 500 panales de abejas, lo que es un número significativo para los apicultores del sur de Chile. Felizmente, dado que somos una cooperativa, no dependemos de una sola área de producción.

Con más de 28 empleados permanentes y 400 recolectores de arándanos temporales, no hay tiempo para la tristeza ni las dudas. Chino explica:

“Lo que sigue es trabajo duro y perseverancia para poner las cosas en orden. Sí, para el final de la cosecha, los apicultores han perdido abejas, colmenas y producción de miel, pero la cooperativa habrá definido un plan para seguir adelante. La solución que encontramos es pagar por adelantado a los apicultores por su cosecha del próximo año. Ellos pertenecen a una familia y no hay necesidad que se sientan solos”

Apicoop se diversificó al negocio de los arándanos una década atrás con préstamos de Shared Interest en 2007 y 2008. Posteriormente se les otorgó otro préstamo para comprar maquinaria para el empaquetado de este producto.

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2020 update from apicoop

A customer for over two decades, this Chilean honey and blueberry co-operative, has been through many changes in that time.  The latest and largest evolution is underway as Apicoop Founder and General Manager, Chino Henriquez prepares to retire from the organisation, with Andres Garay taking the helm.

Andres has been with Apicoop from the very start, he explains: “We were working together in the Diocese of Valdivia…Things were not going well financially.  One day, Chino told me: I am leaving at midday.  Do you want to come with me?  We are going to create a co-operative.  So, we left at 12, as if jumping into a pool without knowing if there was any water in it, just like that.”

As the producers began to operate as an independent business, they started to look for help. Chino says: “We started knocking on doors, and Shared Interest was one of the doors that opened.”  Subsequently, we were one of the first businesses to lend to Apicoop to upgrade its facilities for honey processing.  Since then, they have gone on to become the world’s main supplier of Fairtrade honey.

Reflecting on the beginnings of the co-operative Chino said: “Our main problem was working capital.  We needed money to start everything.  We started with what I estimate today would be like 300 US Dollars and we had a debt of 200,000 US Dollars.  Our debt was 600 times bigger than what we had.  Technically, getting over that was very difficult.”

When Apicoop first started out, they gave ten beehives and bee colonies to farmers on a credit basis.  They asked that the farmers pay this back within seven years, and if the beekeeper was successful, they could take on more hives.

At this time, there was a threat of something called CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.  The risk of this hitting the co-operative, along with the fact that honey production is seasonal, meant that Chino wanted to diversify its product range.  In 2007, Apicoop applied for a further loan from Shared Interest to help fund its blueberry project, and the first export took place two years later.  Although this saw Apicoop become the world’s first Fairtrade blueberry provider, Chino knew that it would not be fully profitable for a further three years.   Amidst this development phase, the region suffered from an earthquake and tsunami in 2010, and so the following year saw the co-operative focus on reconstruction and local consumption.  Apicoop then survived a further earthquake and subsequent volcano eruption in 2016, which we reported on in QR at that time.

Chino says: “As customers, we should be honest with investors. This journey with us will not be perfect. Our individual lives are full of ups and downs. Our business has its ups and downs too. But the important thing is that we will fix our problems, and we don’t repeat our mistakes, rather we learn. So this is a long term investment.”

Today, most of the blueberries are sold locally, with a small portion sold on the international market to supermarkets through a local exporter.  Almost 90% of the blueberry workforce is female, with the co-operative employing around 200 workers during the harvest peak, and paying three times more than the basic salary. 

Apicoop continues its commitment to maintaining environmental sustainability, and therefore measures and controls the carbon and water footprint, using solar energy and a wind turbine.  The co-operative also provides best practice training to beekeepers.

Co-operative member, Andrea Yainez said: “There has been a complete turnaround in several areas of my life.  My work is more valued here at the co-operative.”

Lili Becerra, is in charge of the Beekeping Technical Department, she said: “The most satisfying part of my job is seeing how we support the producers, to achieve their development.  After 19 years of working with them, I have seen how they have been able to grow, how they have been able to consolidate their business, to diversify.”

And Apicoop’s development hasn’t stopped there. Along with honey and blueberries, a brand new purpose-built facility stretching over 4,000 square metres was completed in March 2017. Designed by the co-op’s workers themselves, Chino explains how it has been a labour of love. “Everybody in the co-op had a say in this project; every single department was consulted in the design of the building.”

Co-operative member, David Veraz said: “You see that the plant is growing, it is expanding and giving more work.  That simply translates into a benefit for our families, for our homes. It is how we make a living, and many beekeepers are sending their children to university thanks to their work as beekeepers.  That has a lot of merit.”

There is no doubt that Chino’s successor will continue this people-first focus, which has made Apicoop a success. Andres says: “We try to make the co-operative more than just a place where they buy and sell honey.  We want it to be a place where we can listen to people and that people feel part of the business.  That is what is important, that people feel that the co-operative is theirs.” 

Read more about Apicoop in QR 121.

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