Apicoop: Honey and Blueberry Producer Based in Chile

Shared Interest was one of the first organisations to lend to Apicoop to upgrade facilities for their honey processing in 1997.

Since then, General Manager Chino has steered Chilean co-operative Apicoop, through some life-changing challenges, including diversification from honey into blueberries, and more recently a volcanic eruption that wiped out a substantial amount of their crop and could have been fatal to some of the bees they so lovingly nurture.

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General Manager, Chino, said:

"Our business is not really about honey or blueberries. It is about people. Producers are now sending their children to university, to see this as a result of the income from honey and blueberries is the true meaning of success.”

Honey, blueberries and dreams

Chino faces any hardships head on, explaining that they are a way of life. Chino says: “We lost 500 hives in the 2018 volcanic eruption, which is a significant number for the beekeepers in the area of Southern Chile. Luckily because we are a co-operative, we don’t just rely on one area for production.”

With 28 permanent employees and 400 seasonal blueberry pickers to oversee, there is no time for sadness or hesitancy, he explains:

“What must follow is hard work and perseverance to get things back in order. Yes, by the end of the season they have lost bees, hives and honey production, but the co-op will sort out a plan. The solution we found was to pay the beekeepers in advance for next year’s crop. They belong to a family; there is no need for them to feel alone.”

Apicoop farmers diversified into blueberry production a decade ago with Shared Interest loans in 2007 and 2008 providing funding for the project. Another loan followed to buy machinery to help with packaging.

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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