Story by Becky Speere
Ten years ago Gunars Valkirs began planning to create a jungle on an open plain, and then he started planting trees: cacao to be harvested to the future, other species to block wind and provide a canopy. Valkirs has now planted seven thousand cacao trees and five thousand others over twenty acres in the Maui ahupua‘a of Ku‘ia. The trees’ presence in the landscape, he believes, may well give the company he founded, Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate, a negative carbon footprint. The trees are only one part of a comprehensive green whole: The factory, run entirely off solar, is not even connected to the grid. The packaging of Maui Ku‘ia’s chocolate bars is near 100 percent compostable. But it is not just all that, notes Valkirs, that makes the company sustainable. There is more.
Valkirs likes to talk about sustainability. He notes that most associate the word with being environmentally responsible. He’d like to see the definition go further. “We have a broader mission,” he says: giving 100 percent of Maui Ku‘ia’s net profits back to the community through donations to non-profit organizations. “Culturally in Hawai‘i my understanding is that the most important thing about a company is why it exists,” Valkirs says. “We have created a for-profit company that exists solely to give back to the community.”
The inspiration came from Valkirs’ own love of chocolate and his practice of donating to Maui non-profits—why not combine the two, he thought, to create a model of a purely philanthropic business? He and others with whom he works in the field continue to plant cacao, assessing and selecting the trees for flavor and productivity as they go. Valkirs pays the farm’s laborers $20 an hour on average with full benefits, he says, given that a living wage is yet another component of a truly sustainable endeavor. The plans are to keep planting until fifty acres are under cultivation—and to keep making and selling chocolate that will enrich the very place in which it is grown.