Where do cacao farmers fit in?

Most chocolate consumers don’t consider where their chocolate is coming from. Those of you reading this blog are already ahead of your peers, because you’re educating yourself about the process, about what it takes to bring those tasty bars of chocolate to your tongue.

Even then, the majority of what I’ve covered so far involves the processing end of chocolate, once it’s considered cocoa. However, there’s a whole world of chocolate that occurs before the beans are hard and dry. That’s the world of the cacao farmers. I’ve discussed the importance of knowing the supply chain of your food, and the concept of slow food. It’s also important to consider the individuals who plant the cacao trees, cut down the cacao pods, and open them up to ferment and dry the cacao beans.

Recently, a video of a cacao farmer tasting chocolate for the first time went viral. The video was produced by Dutch news outlet, Metropolis. NPR covers the story focusing on the divide between producers and consumers. Metropolis also covered the other end of the story: what Dutch chocolate consumers feel and know about the plant their chocolate came from.

A few chocolate-makers are already paying close attention to the farmers, incorporating them into their decision-making process, and ensuring that their voices are included at the table of the chocolate industry. For example, SPAGnVOLA in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a vertically integrated chocolate business. They own their own farm in the Dominican Republic and control every part of chocolate production, from branch to bar. I highly recommend taking a look at their single estate system and impressive impact strategy. Eric Reid, CEO and Founder, explains his strategy on a visit to Nigeria here.

Additionally, Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri, provides one of my favorite models for a chocolate company. They practice direct trade (something we’d love to do here at Root Chocolate). They also incorporate the farmers they work with in their financial decisions with a strategy they call “a stake in the outcome,” and provide community development support through “a product of change.” Shawn Askinosie also operates Chocolate University, teaching local kids the ins and outs of chocolate and leads trips to Tanzania to share the chocolate journey with those who produce the chocolate in the first place. Shawn gave a commencement address to Missouri State University in December 2011 that still gives me chills.

We’d love to meet these exemplary leaders in the chocolate industry some day! Both Eric Reid and Shawn Askinosie consider the well-being of the cacao farmers just as important as the rest of the chocolate-making process. And frankly, chocolate wouldn’t happen without them, so we agree!

In a recent conversation with Yellow Seed about importing cocoa beans as a network of chocolate makers, an interesting idea came up. What if, just like we chocolate-makers choose which farmers or co-ops to source our beans from, the farmers themselves have the chance to decide which chocolate-makers to sell their beans to? In other words, why not provide some agency to the farmers in the process?

In this world of international trade, inequality, and scarcity, I’m still working out how to best incorporate the interests and voices of the cacao farmers into the chocolate we produce. Thankfully, there are leaders in the industry like SPANgVOLA and Askinosie. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to comment below!

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Why does supply chain matter?

For my loyal followers who received a draft of this post in your emails on Thursday, I apologize – that was not the final version. WordPress glitch! Here’s the official final post:

That shirt you’re wearing right now – do you know which country the fibers came from, where they were processed into cloth, or who stitched them together before arriving at your favorite clothing store? Do you know how much the farmer receives for the cotton he grows, what impact the transportation of the materials and then the finished product had on the environment, or whether the entire system is sustainable?

I don’t mean to make you feel guilty and I certainly am not an expert on clothing sourcing. That said, I do think it’s worth considering the path our stuff takes before it arrives on our doorstep, on our skin, or in our mouth. And I wouldn’t even consider mine a new or radical point of view. The Story of Stuff came out more than 5 years ago and the story translates to food through documentaries like Food, Inc., FRESH, and Forks over Knives, as well as the many masterpieces of Michael Pollan.

“How does this relate to your chocolate?” you might ask. Fair question. This question goes to the name I’ve given this website – Root Chocolate. That name was meant to bring to mind two roots: the simplified process of making chocolate from its core ingredients, and the idea that chocolate doesn’t arrive in this world as a whole. It touches many lives, environments, and even countries along the way as it transforms from Theobroma cacao to the bar you bring home. In fact, the documentary, Black Gold brings the supply chain issue to the coffee fields that often sit adjacent to the cocoa farms we’ll discuss in future posts. And as part of my personal mission, I intend to bring awareness to chocolate-lovers everywhere about the path that the components of your chocolate take before they end up following a sip of wine down your throat after dinner. Just on Friday the S.F. Gate published an article on the implications of slave trade on cocoa beans!

There will be many articles to come on the process of farming the cacao pods, fermenting and drying the beans, shipping them to a manufacturer (no matter how small or large scale), and then the process of processing the beans into an edible chocolate creation. Supply chain has environmental, socio-economic, and systemic implications. Today, though, I want to focus on my personal connection to supply chain, which falls mostly into the socio-economic realm.

In college, I spent a semester in Brazil with the School for International Training, which turned into a much more than a typical study abroad experience for me. My focus of the semester was to conduct independent research on my topic of choice – contemporary slavery. It is a difficult concept to grasp that slaves still exist when we are taught as early as elementary school that the United States of America abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. Worldwide, slavery lasted slightly longer, and Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to terminate the classic system of slavery with the Áurea Law in 1888.

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However, I spent the fall of 2006 in Açailândia, Maranhão in the Northeast of Brazil, where I conducted field research consisting of observations and interviews with former slaves and those struggling to help them, which illuminated the system of exploitation, a system that I once believed had died out long before I was born. The memories that still ring clearest in my mind from that semester are the interviews I held with former slaves, who had worked in coal fields and lumber yards without pay. This subject consumed me for the next year and a half and led me to publish a book on my findings, Contemporary Slavery in the Northeast of Brazil: The Social and Economic Manifestations of Coloniality. You can read the initial (unpolished) report I produced at the end of my semester here.

Now, as a result of my experience on the ground with individuals exploited at the bottom of the supply chain, I pay special attention to the sources of my stuff and my food. It’s not easy, but those companies with transparent supply chains are the ones with less to hide. Resources are now available that show exactly that:

We may not be able to trace the origin of every product in our lives, but it’s worth a try. So, let’s all do our part to source our food and stuff responsibly and pay attention to where it’s coming from, cocoa beans included!