Erika and Janett Liriano, two of Well+Good's 2022 Changemakers, are continuing their family’s legacy of cocoa production in the Dominican Republic. Daughters of a cocoa farmer in San Cristóbal, a region in the south of the country, the two sisters (born in Queens, New York) spent a significant amount of time in their parent’s homeland. But as Erika, 27, spent more and more time assisting with her father’s farm, she began to unearth issues like miscommunication between cocoa farmers and the exporter-appointed middlemen, as well as exploitative practices, for example, the lack of transparency around the price of cocoa, within the agricultural industry.
“I just one day was like, 'I think we can do something better here.' We know and understand both sides of the equation,” says Erika, co-founder and president of Inaru, an ethical cacao company she launched in 2018 . “There's a lot of things to consider, especially as it relates to chocolate. It's a very complicated supply chain, sometimes overly complicated.”
The professional dancer-turned-operations pro approached her sister Janett, whose professional experience ranges from apparel and biopharma to manufacturing and technology, with the idea, and the Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree felt they could build a unique solution together.
“The challenge that she brought to me was like, you're doing all this amazing stuff in all these spaces. But what we actually care about are these harder things,” says Janett, 30, co-founder and chief executive at Inaru. “What we actually care about is how do we create wealth in our communities? How do we give back what our parents gave us? Not give it back in a philanthropic sense, but actually build business systems in these regions, so that we don't have to leave paradise.”
Building a social impact company in the Caribbean
In September 2018, the duo founded Inaru. The name came from a moment in Janett’s apartment, trying to think of a name as a baby niece was being passed around from sister to sister. One of their older sisters, Anabell, was the one to suggest looking up Taino words or names that could apply to this venture—Taino being the Indigenous people of the Dominican Republic. Inaru means woman, or feminine energy. "In an industry typically dominated by men, Inaru’s goal is to re-shift and refocus on what feminine energy and innovation can bring, and how when we move with generosity, creativity, and a sense of abundance, magic happens," Janett says.
They spent the first two years interviewing smallholder farmers (farmers that own farms that are less than five acres in size); speaking with agronomists from the Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Cacao and organic certifiers for the U.S. and EU; researching other cocoa companies; and delving into cooperative models. However, when COVID-19 hit, the sisters had to stay put in the Dominican Republic due to the border closures. Though they both worked remotely, it was their chance to fully invest in their vision; so, Janett stepped down from her position as chief of staff at Cambrian (her full-time position) that year, and Janett followed suit, resigning from her full-time position as project manager at Human Ventures—all to fully work on Inaru full-time.
With the Dominican Republic accounting for over 60 percent of organic cocoa exports, Erika and Janett set out to fix the invisible supply chain. In the traditional model, the middleman who deals directly with the exporter and collects the cacao (aka the raw, unprocessed version of cocoa), from the farmers is tasked with compensating the producers on behalf of the exporter. The exporter provides the middleman funds for the cacao, but not their services. The faulty system often leaves farmers disempowered and without pay for their labor and premium-quality cacao. Designing an equitable solution that addresses each paypoint, Inaru contracts the middlemen, paying them separately from the producer, who receives the total amount due and at a higher rate than what they are traditionally paid. Treating farmers as valuable logistics partners has led Inaru to onboard roughly 520 farmers, with 301 being certified organic, with the rest expected to be certified by the end of the summer. There are currently over 1800 farmers that want to join the Inaru community.
“We’re showing Dominicans that we are more than just a place of commodities,” shares Janett. “We are rich, everyone in the global south is very rich and they can experience that on multiple levels with the recognition of the country, with the recognition of the food, and, hopefully, the recognition of an international brand."
Having raised $1.5 million in seed capital, the sister-run chocolate company is excited to launch a consumer product in the next 12 months. In addition, they’re focused on taking the steps needed to support cocoa farmers as they navigate the very real effects of climate change.
A family affair
Erika and Janett have three other sisters, who have all weighed in on the business, along with their parents. It’s not the first time these co-founders worked together (they were both colleagues at Loomia, an e-textile business), however, this time around it’s for their own business. They each affectionately note their admiration for one another, and excitement to scale the business as business partners and sisters.
“I don't think I've ever been unhappy in the struggles that I've faced with my sister,” says Janett. “It's been very fulfilling, meaningful struggles and with someone that I believe in 100 percent. I do not doubt her integrity for a second. I do not doubt her intelligence, her commitment to this… I realized we don't make those bets on ourselves, on our communities, on our family, on our friends who have the same untapped potential.”
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