INARU, an Afro-Latina-Led Movement for a Fairer Cocoa Industry
We rarely wonder where our food comes from. Much less all that comprises the production chain to get them to our table.
Cocoa is one of those products.
For Dominican sisters, Janett and Erika Liriano, antiquated and exploitative cocoa harvesting practices hit close to home.
“My father retired to his cocoa farm about 10 years ago,” Janett Liriano told us in an exclusive interview. “He had been calling us back to the potential value in the cocoa farm and think about all the good we could do with our entrepreneurial experience and education in a country like DR, where this is much-unrealized promise and potential.”
We talked to Janett Liriano about her experience building INARU, a one-of-a-kind cocoa company.
Heritage, inspiration, and hope
More than a start-up, INARU is a modern and ethical agriculture movement.
From cultivation to fermentation, refinement, and product development, the Liriano sisters have thought of everything.
“Right before the pandemic, we decided to spend time in the country,” Janett told us. The sisters wanted to understand what was really happening in the cocoa supply chain. As Janett told us, they wanted to know why farmers and producers like their father were not being paid well.
So the sisters knew they had an opportunity to create a complete and compassionate business that valued everyone involved.
And they could do it in Latin America.
“There is an idea in much of Latin America that the land of opportunity is the US alone. Meanwhile, our home countries have so much natural abundance, and the people are full of ambition and drive,” Janett explained. “We thought about how our parents boldly moved to a country they didn’t grow up in. We thought about the poetry in returning to the DR, a land we didn’t visit until we were adults, to bring the opportunity back home.”
Doing good is not that complicated
Born in New York to Dominican parents, the Liriano sisters knew the risks and beauty of farming in Latin America.
Both attended the Fame School in Manhattan and studied performing arts and dance. But their professional careers focused on raising funds to help other start-ups.
Until they came up with an idea for a project of their own.
On a trip to the Dominican Republic, they realized there was an opportunity in the cocoa crop.
“I’m motivated by the idea that doing good is not that difficult; it simply takes courage, creativity, and commitment,” said Janett.
“The image of happy, well-compensated, empowered farmers and rural community members was one that really drove me. The idea of the ribbon cutting at the first refinery dedicated to a Dominican brand and its exports was also thrilling. [Those are the] moments of value transformation. I want to redefine what wealth, richness, and luxury are.”
And then INARU was born
The Lirano sisters designed a vertical system with fair compensation at its core. INARU is a movement that makes direct contracts with farmers. This is something “unheard of in the Dominican Republic and most cocoa-producing countries.”
“It has been a real education and trust-building exercise for folks to believe we really are here to walk the walk,” Janett explains.
The sisters attribute their growth and success to the enthusiasm with which they started the project. They now have a refinery in the Dominican Republic, scheduled to be fully operational by 2023.
The company is now the only exporter owned by women of color that offers direct profit sharing to farmers. INARU also funds regenerative agriculture transitions while creating opportunities and jobs.
An initiative by and for women
However, INARU is not only a revolutionary idea in the economic area. It is also revolutionary in the gender equality movement.
The Liriano sisters have observed a greater receptivity to new methods. As Janett explains, it’s “a desire for change divorced from ego in the association.”
That is why their type of business is different, involving farmers, most of whom are women.
“Women-led farms historically have been more willing to improve their agricultural and organic practices,” Janett told us. “[They are] more willing to try new things for data collection, and more open with information, which is how we improve our assumptions.”
“Women in the communities will serve an increasingly important role in transforming the industry and improving the land,” she added.
INARU’s promising future
After several years of hard work, INARU is finally on the map.
Janett was one of 30 under 30 on the Forbes list. Erika was one of the 100 women who changed the world the most in 2022, according to the BBC. The whole business world has recognized the Liriano sisters for the way they are redefining the cocoa supply chain and ensuring that farmers of color receive fair compensation.
Similarly, Janett is also the only female BIPOC to raise more than $1 million in venture capital twice.
Her dream is to see hundreds of Dominicans directly employed by INARU in high-paying jobs. As Janett told us, they would like thousands of workers indirectly become part of Inaru’s value chain.
“I hope to see INARU’s model replicated across the country and expanding into other countries like Ecuador,” she added.
Liriano assured they expect to “transition farmers from below poverty line pay to well-compensated, dignified, and valued members in society.”
For her, a brighter future would be one in which the world “recognizes that the best chocolate in the world comes from places where cocoa is grown.”
Liriano hopes there will be a “real consumer awareness” of the goodness of his business model, as well as an “appreciation for how we redefine and share true wealth.”
A template for other Latinas who want to follow in her footsteps
In addition to her success story, Janett wants to share what they have learned at INARU with other enterprising women of color.
The entrepreneur wants Latinas who follow in her footsteps to know not to doubt themselves, “the world will do enough of that for you.”
“In this journey, surround yourself with people who deeply believe in what you are doing, and speak power and hope into yourself. This will hold you in the moments of difficulty and disappointment that are just there to make you stronger.”
Janett also recommends reading many books, researching, and studying business models and leaders you admire.
“Don’t be afraid to do things differently, but investigate why it hasn’t been done that way,” she adds.
Her key tips are:
- Not all money is green for your business. Determine if your business model fits VC backing or is better suited for private equity, bank financing, or bootstrapping over time. Look up the differences in requirements for the type of capital you seek. This way, you won’t waste time knocking on the wrong doors.
- Find the fastest, most cost-sensitive/efficient way to test if your solution is needed, and collect the data. You could do this by making a small amount of product to gift/sell to get consumer feedback, surveying your target audience on their interest in your solution, build a demo folks can play with. The faster you can get to a first draft, the faster you can get to the finish line.
- Invest in expertise to prevent costly corrections later: certain things require experts. Legal, tax, and accounting are the primary ones many struggle to fund in the early days. Y Combinator and Cooley, RocketLawyer have many standard free or low-cost templates for investment documents, contracts, and more written by lawyers you can use, learn about and protect yourself with. Companies like Justworks or Gusto can handle your payroll in a tax-compliant way. Doing these essential operations right from the beginning will prevent headaches later on.
Janett concludes with an empowering message:
“The world we live in was built by people just like you and me. We can build a different world- and the most important thing is to start today. When we get distracted by what’s wrong, we don’t focus on all the ways we have the power to change it.”