Transparency in Specialty Cocoa: An Intermediary’s View

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I was privileged to attend the FCCI Chocolate Conservatory last month, representing Twin & Twin Trading. Below is the post I wrote for Twin after our thought-provoking panel conversation on specialty cocoa trading.

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In early October, I had the opportunity to represent Twin & Twin Trading at the inaugural Chocolate Conservatory, hosted by the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) at Harvard University. Carla Martin, the Founder and Executive Director of FCCI, asked me to participate on an expert panel entitled “Impact and business practice in specialty cacao.” My fellow panelists were Abel Fernandez, Export Manager for CONACADO producer organization in the Dominican Republic; Dr. Erica Caple James, who is researching Haitian cocoa in her faculty role at MIT; Jesse Last, Director of Sourcing & Strategic Initiatives for Taza Chocolate; Heriberto Paredes Urena, from Zorzal Cacao, also in the Dominican Republic; and Emily Stone, co-founder and CEO of Uncommon Cacao.

As you can see, we all work in different locations in the specialty cocoa industry. “Impact and business practice” was broad enough, however, for each of us to speak meaningfully about our work. I took the opportunity to talk about Twin Trading’s role as an intermediary in specialty cocoa, and to be transparent about its operations—including the value that Twin Trading brings, specifically as an intermediary.

“Transparent” now feels like a charged word. Perhaps it should be a neutral term, but at least in cocoa, being “transparent” has become almost a morally good act in itself. If companies are transparent—for example, by publishing reports on their sourcing practices, as both Taza Chocolate and Uncommon Cacao do—then that act of revealing business detail seems, already, a “good” deed. If a company is not transparent, then it may seem as if it has something to hide, and the lack of transparency is therefore, on its own, “bad.”

But being transparent as a trading partner in specialty cocoa poses a number of challenges, many of them to do with effective communication. What if the information that is necessary for transparency is confusing, or dull, or—worst of all—might even appear to show harm?

On our panel, Jesse Last spoke about the risk that information in transparency reports may be read out of context. Taza was the first company in what we sometimes call the craft chocolate sector to produce a transparency report, which has influenced what transparency looks like in specialty cocoa more broadly. The company has more experience than most when it comes to communicating honestly and effectively with interested readers. Jesse gave an example from a recent Taza transparency report, in which it might appear that one of Taza’s export partners had paid the farmers in its network a “low” price for their cocoa, compared to others.

However, within that context the price was quite high. Moreover, Taza’s price had the effect of putting upward pressure on the cocoa buying price in that area. This is a positive and noteworthy achievement, but it may not come across when readers are looking at a price chart.

Even the most motivated consumer may not spend time delving into the specifics of every specialty cocoa trade, to learn about context and to connect all the complex components. And that is OK—I am not suggesting that every person should spend her time doing this. I am suggesting that the complexity of trading, particularly when a goal is to support vulnerable producers, may not lend itself so easily to transparency.

Some parts of trading can seem tedious: tracking vessel schedules, making insurance decisions, calculating margins. Some parts are so complex, such as the mechanisms of price risk management, that it can be challenging to explain them at length, never mind in the brief space afforded by a transparency report.

There is also a popular idea that trading should be lean, minimal, and expeditious to give the best deal to smallholders. To put it another way, trading should involve as few “middle men” as possible, and that will help smallholders gain the most value from their crop.

But in fact, as Emily Stone put it, “middle women” in specialty cocoa add value. Trading is not so easy as picking up a phone and letting someone know you have specialty cocoa to sell. It involves an on-going, dedicated process of negotiation and relationship building, much of it conducted by intermediaries, whose goal is a sustainable business for all involved.

At Twin Trading, indeed it is a middle man—Matt Earlam, Head of Trading—who is responsible for drawing up cocoa contracts for the good of all parties. These contracts must serve, at minimum, smallholders, the producer organization, and the buyer, each with a different set of needs that must be met for the trade to work properly. And, of course, it must also serve Twin Trading, so that it can stay in business and continue this work. Negotiating that, especially when the goal is to generate stability and healthy returns for smallholders, takes commitment and talent. It is no exaggeration to say that specialty cocoa trading would not be happening on its current scale—and it certainly would not grow—were it not for such intermediaries.

The panel was very thought provoking, and I am grateful to the FCCI for creating a space for the conversation. Hopefully specialty cocoa traders can continue along this road to “transparency,” in a way that recognizes contributions and added value at every step, with nuance and engagement, and bringing caring consumers and other interested supporters along with us.

This post was first published by Twin & Twin Trading, November 9, 2018.

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Cocoa: Women’s Business in the Dominican Republic

Earlier this autumn, I had a chance to visit the Dominican Republic, where I learned a great deal about women’s roles in cocoa and chocolate. When I returned, I wrote this post for Divine Chocolate USA, which had made a generous donation of chocolate and other fun products for me to share with the Women in Trade Association members, and cocoa and chocolate producer groups that I met. Enjoy the read, and keep an eye out for an upcoming post about transparency in specialty chocolate, following my recent panel talk at the inaugural Chocolate Conservatory, hosted by the FCCI at Harvard University.

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Elsie Doñé of Cacao Mae, with a Divine bag at my “Branding for Success” talk for the Women in Trade Association, Santo Domingo

I had the privilege recently to spend ten days in the Dominican Republic, at the invitation of Exporta Calidad (Exporting Quality, a USDA-funded program managed by the International Executive Service Corps).

The purpose was to meet with cocoa producers and chocolate makers, advising on business strategy and marketing, and to better understand the gender aspects of the program. As soon as I arrived, we dove into field visits, driving all across the island to visit businesses that produce cocoa, or cocoa products, for local markets or for export.

Having done virtually all of my cocoa fieldwork in Africa, the first thing I noticed was that there is a local market for cocoa consumables. As a scholar, I have learned a lot about the cultural history of cocoa in this part of the world, where people have been making things to drink and eat out of cocoa fruit for centuries. But knowing something from books is different to experiencing it. I am used to Africa’s export-only markets, where most cocoa leaves the country as beans and there is little taste for cocoa. But in the DR, on our first visit of each day, we were greeted with a cup of hot chocolate, often spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and sometimes paired with bread: a typical breakfast. I spent time with many small businesses that made and sold las bolas de cacao (thick rolls of solid cocoa that are grated into hot water or milk), cocoa butter (often made dearly by boiling the cocoa, when the business did not own a press), cocoa powder, cocoa wine, and even a cocoa pulp marmalade. I had never seen cocoa put to so many uses, or enjoyed it in so many forms.

It took me a few days, however, to realize something else: that I was four or five visits in before I spoke with a man! In West Africa, the business of selling and exporting cocoa is very much a male endeavor. But in the DR, I was seeing women running cocoa businesses and in leadership roles at producer organizations, at least among the small ventures (at the large companies and major exporters, I did meet mostly with men). I asked Nilsy Delgado if this was also the case for the program that she runs for Exporta Calidad, oriental vegetables (so called not because they originated in Asia, but because they are exported to there). She said no. For those crops, women work in the packing plants and are often in charge of quality inspection, but the business leaders are mostly men.

I couldn’t say for sure why this is so, but I think it has something to do with the first point: that in the DR, cocoa drinks and so forth are things that people consume, every day, in their homes. They are part of the food culture. At several of the businesses, local customers dropped in during my visit, shopping for this or that. Women prepare cocoa for their own families to consume, so they are the ones who create businesses out of these products. There are definitely exceptions: near the end of my stay in the Dominican Republic, I met with a young man whose company was producing cocoa products and seeking to export them. Surely there are other local cocoa companies in the DR run by men, perhaps many of them. But at least on this visit, I saw cocoa products as women’s business.

On my last day in Santo Domingo, I gave a talk to the Exporta Calidad Women in Trade association, on branding for success. In my talk, I used Divine Chocolate as an example of a company that has made women’s work—and empowerment—in Ghana cocoa a part of its brand story. Divine has been able to communicate to chocolate lovers in a way that I have not seen any other company do, about the real women behind Ghana’s cocoa. Some of the women who attended my branding talk in Santo Domingo were the same cocoa business managers I had visited earlier in the week. I saw their heads nodding in recognition when I showed images of women from Kuapa Kokoo, which provides most cocoa for Divine Chocolate, working on their farms and sometimes even enjoying chocolate. The women who grow cocoa in Ghana may not make cocoa powder or butter, or serve their families cocoa drinks made from fruits that they harvest. But had I been presenting on Dominican cocoa and chocolate to an audience of women in Ghana (and maybe I will!), I believe that that audience too would have recognized their fellow businesswomen in the Dominican Republic, and seen their cocoa business affinity.

The world of cocoa is both small and infinite. Working in many different parts of this industry, I see similarities everywhere—and, often, the same people—and that makes it feel quite close. But the learning possibilities are endless. I am grateful to have spent time in a cocoa place that was totally new to me, but still to have felt kinship there, and to have taken another step on my lifelong journey in understanding the whys and the hows of chocolate. My grateful thanks to IESC, Exporta Calidad, Divine, and all the businesswomen and men who shared their time and experiences with me in the Dominican Republic.

This post first appeared at Divine Chocolate USA, Good Stuff: http://www.divinechocolate.com/us/good-stuff/news/2018/10/cocoa-women-s-business-dominican-republic

Urban Harvest: Cocoa in Accra

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A few weeks ago, I learned that there is a cocoa tree at Guinness Ghana here in Accra, where my partner works. While I am living in Ghana, I am making the most of new research opportunities, and here was an unexpected one: What would it be like to harvest and process my own cocoa? Here is the story so far …

IMG_0102The tree sits right next to the parking lot—note the truck packed with orange crates of Guinness in the background! It’s in front of the staff clinic, and I asked the clinic manager, Anne, if anyone tended it or harvested the fruit. She said no. As you can see, it’s quite feral and has no shade trees for company.

IMG_0189Still, it was bearing fruit, with more to come—see the bunches of white flowers, some of which will mature into cocoa pods.

IMG_0130The first step was to harvest the pods. For those that grow high up on the trees, farmers use a pole with a blade or hook on the end. There happened to be a pole nearby, so I used that. But it was made of plastic and had no hook, so I  had to ram the end of the pole into a pod stem over and over until it fell off and rolled across the brick patio.

Version 2Using the bendy pole wasn’t the easiest harvest method, so I began plucking pods from trunk, where I could reach them. My driver, Stanley, grew up in a cocoa farming area, and helped me with the harvest.

IMG_0139After ten or fifteen minutes, my shopping basket was full of cocoa pods.

IMG_0148Typically, farmers in Ghana leave harvested pods in a pile until family and neighbors can help crack them open and scoop out the seeds, often on a Saturday. I piled my pods on a chair on the balcony at home and planned to break them open on the weekend, when my partner could help. I was full of enthusiasm to begin and had high hopes for the final product already. I imagined that, once fermented and dried, the beans would be plump and flavorful, maybe with a hint of Guinness from the brewery. On an Instagram post, I ambitiously asked for brand name suggestions. Thoughtful friends and family gave creative responses, including “chocodocolate” (natalievanwykartist), “from beer to bean” (avcrofts), and “doc chocolate” (profseanoconnor).

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When we sat down to begin, I had my first revelation: though I have observed every step of cocoa harvest and processing, some of them many times, I didn’t actually know that process. Other languages, including French and Spanish, have different versions of the verb “to know” that distinguish between knowing a person, knowing information, or knowing how to do something. The best we can do in English is to talk about “knowing that” versus “knowing how.”

For example, I know that after harvesting cocoa pods, which are thick and sturdy, farmers often use a machete to break them open. We didn’t have a machete, so I got out a kitchen cleaver, the big one that we use for slicing butternut squash. As I sat there with a pod in one hand and the cleaver in the other, I immediately understood that I did not know the how. It seemed similar to whacking a knife into an avocado stone to extract it. But the cocoa pod was larger, and I had to use a more fearsome knife with more force. It was terrifying to imagine bringing the blade smashing down on the pod. What if I missed? I could easily slice off part of my hand or make a deep cut.

It was too scary to do, so I placed the pod on the balcony and chopped at it with the cleaver. It sometimes took a few tries to make a cut that was deep enough. I then dug my fingers into the cut and wrested the pod apart. It was not an efficient method, and certainly I was not nearly fast enough to operate on a commercial scale. Farmers have to learn how to break open many pods quickly, even if the methods are scary or dangerous.

IMG_0174My partner and I took turns breaking pods and scooping out seeds. Some of them looked like they had worms crawling out of them, but after a moment I realized that those seeds had germinated. Of course, I knew that cocoa seeds might germinate, but I had no idea if or how that would impact the rest of the process. Would germinated seeds ferment? If they did, would they be usable for making chocolate? Wondering about these questions also made me realize that I had harvested the pods without any thought of whether they were ripe—or over-ripe. I could tell you that pods often change color as they ripen, from green to yellow or orange, but some stay green. I did not know how to tell if the ones on the Guinness tree were ready for harvest.

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I decided that the safest thing would be to separate the evidently germinated seeds into their own pile. I organized the seeds on a bed of plantain leaves, as I have seen farmers do, and covered them with another layer of waxy fronds. This is called the heap method of fermentation and is common here in Ghana.

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I wasn’t sure how messy the process would be, so I laid the whole thing on top of a plastic bag to protect the balcony from being stained. I added a couple of dead potted plants as weights, so that the pile would not blow open in the sometimes-strong breezes.

IMG_0199Then I had to travel to the UK for a week. I asked my partner to make us a drying table while I was away, and there was a beautiful one waiting for me when I returned. It was too late at night to transfer my beans, so I put an almond on it to judge the scale and prepared to go out in the morning and start the drying process.

IMG_0201My fermentation heap didn’t look at all as I expected. The plantain leaves had dried and shriveled, and I could see some filthy-looking beans spilling out from one side. When we first got the plantain leaves, I had left them on the balcony overnight. When we went out the next day to crack open the pods, I lifted a frond and a giant cockroach scuttled out. I imagined that the environment of the heap had only become more resource-rich for roaches, and prepared myself for dozens to run out when I lifted up the leaves.

IMG_0203Well, let me tell you, those beans were so disgusting that not even the cockroaches wanted them! They had gotten terribly molded, and they certainly did not look like any fermented beans I’d seen before. I couldn’t bear to touch them, so I put on food prep gloves to transfer handfuls to the drying mat, trying not to breathe in the mold.

IMG_0206I had been posting pictures of the process on Instagram. When I put up these images, I received an email almost immediately from my friend Steve DeVries, who is a craft chocolate maker and expert in the bean to bar process. He sounded horrified, and sent me references for a half dozen books on cocoa fermentation. Steve wasn’t the only one to be put off. I sat in my living room and watched morosely as a crow alighted on the balcony railing, glanced at the beans, and flew away. No one was interested in my cocoa.

IMG_0208I still had a shred of optimism that the beans could be saved, though, so I moved the drying mat into the sunshine. They stayed there for more than a week, and I can’t say they improved. I went out one day to stare at them during a writing break, and realized that, while working on a report on Liberia’s cocoa market, I had addressed the challenge of beans going moldy during the rainy season (which is now), if evacuation trucks get stalled on the road. Compared to someone who farms cocoa for a living, I’d done an infinitesimal amount of labor, and I still felt sorrow and frustration at seeing my cocoa spoiled and unusable. How had I typed so dispassionately that beans going moldy was “especially a problem during the rainy season”? What did I know of beans going moldy, until it happened to my harvest? It was repulsive, viscerally so, to see a food I had tended be taken over by another organism.

IMG_E0214I had had a similar realization once before: that as much as I might know about cocoa processing, I lack how knowledge. When I was in Seattle teaching at UW last year, I stopped on my way home from campus one evening at the Chocolate Man shop to take one of Bill Fredericks’s tempering classes. For the first hour, I listened as Bill explained and demonstrated the different tempering methods. I understood everything he was saying; I’d written about the process myself in Cocoa.

But as soon as Bill handed me a bowl and spatula, I realized that I had neither intuition nor a mental map of what was supposed to happen next. I mean, the only thing I had to do was stir the melted chocolate. But of course it is more than that: it’s just knowing that you are doing it right, that the crystallization is happening and the cocoa butter molecules are lining up in their strongest form. As basic as the task was—stirring—I did not know how. I gave it a few half-attempts, and then turned myself to the unnecessary task of cleaning dried chocolate off of equipment and working surfaces for the rest of the evening.

I haven’t returned to hand tempering since, but with this home cocoa processing, I will try again. After all these years researching and writing about cocoa and chocolate, there is so much that I just do not know, and cannot know until I experience it myself—and much of that, I will likely never experience. Having just published a book about the politics of cocoa, from farm to factory to taste, it was stunning to realize that. I have put my whole heart into understanding cocoa through research and writing, but I will do my best now to try out other ways. My next opportunity will be light crop, which happens here in July and August. I will return to the Guinness Ghana cocoa tree then, and see what more I can learn.

Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part II

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Chocolate tasting with the Gola Rainforest cocoa team; photo by Katie Sims. All photos below by Felicity Butler, second from left in back row.

When I took the role of cocoa marketer for Twin & Twin Trading, and began working with the Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations and others in Africa, I decided that I would host chocolate tastings for my colleagues. Having traded specialty coffee for the better part of three decades, Twin has an in-house coffee lab, where the quality control manager analyzes samples and hosts weekly cuppings for the coffee marketers and traders. Several of the staff are certified Q Graders, a program that has done a great deal to standardize coffee assessment methods and vocabulary to describe quality. But with no Q Grader equivalent for cocoa, and with Twin increasing the variety of cocoa origins it was trading, I thought that the time was right for dedicated chocolate trainings.

I developed a series of courses—Chocolate 101, 201, and 301—and held them at the London office last summer. We explored the bean to bar process, as well as chocolate types, the meaning of cocoa percentages, various origins, and even roast profiles. And, of course, we tasted bars to illustrate all of those.

It was just as important for the producers organizations I was working with in Africa to do chocolate tastings, so I began to think about how to make those happen. As I have discussed in my book, Cocoa, farmers and buyers—the most “upstream” people in the cocoa-chocolate supply chain—typically have little opportunity to engage with chocolate. Many growers I have spoken with over the years have described for me the metrics for assessing cocoa quality, including fermentation level, bean size and weight, insect damage, mold level, and so forth. But very, very few discuss flavor. If the members and staff of cocoa producer organizations could experience dedicated chocolate tastings, I felt they would better understand the flavor priorities of potential buyers. With that understanding, they would be in a stronger position to negotiate sales.

When we were doing the chocolate courses in London, one of the Twin staff members, Katie Sims, was preparing to spend a month in Sierra Leone, to assist with the Gola season review and to prepare for the prospective buyer visit from Greg at Dandelion and Gino at Meridian (Katie is now the Gola Rainforest cocoa project manager, based in Kenema). When Katie set off, I equipped her with a selection of craft chocolate bars (thanks to the range on offer at Cocoa Runners in London) and a flavor wheel or two. Katie led a tasting to introduce the Gola cocoa team to connoisseur methods and vocabulary, and to prepare them for conversations with Greg and Gino. When they arrived, Greg led another tasting. This was, of course, before the sale happened, so the Gola Rainforest bar did not yet exist; instead, the team tasted other Dandelion bars.

When I went back to Sierra Leone last month, for the end-of-season review and to share Dandelion’s now newly made Gola Rainforest chocolate bar, some of the team members had thus experienced two tastings. But in my opinion, there is always room for more chocolate.

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Preparing for chocolate tasting with the Gola and Jula teams in Kenema

After our season review at Lalehun research center in the Gola Rainforest National Park, we returned to the town of Kenema and the Gola head office. There, the agricultural extension officers and cocoa buyers sat down with me for our chocolate tasting. The buyers and team leaders had, for the most part, participated in both Katie’s and Greg’s tasting sessions. Most of the agricultural extension officers had not, and nor had one of the farmer organization executives, who joined us.

Tasting chocolate is not the same as eating it. When I was growing up, I ate as much chocolate as I could, as fast as I could so that I could eat more. Tasting chocolate involves, among other things, slowing down the experience. When we slow down, we can taste flavor and experience texture more keenly.

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Tasting chocolate involves letting it melt in your mouth. I’m emphasizing, “Don’t chew!”

I began by outlining the methodology that I like to use for chocolate tastings, which involves all the senses. We discussed looking at the chocolate, to observe the features of its molding (for example, patterns of pods or leaves, or a company name) and to inspect it for bloom or the shininess that indicates good temper. We smelled the chocolate to see if any particular scents came through, and rubbed it with our fingers to experience the moisturizing sensation of the cocoa butter. We snapped pieces in half next to our ears to listen to its temper. And then, of course we tasted.

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Basic flavor wheel, with major categories often used to classify chocolate

One of the goals was to see what flavor notes we would identify in each bar. To make sure we were all using similar flavor categories, I drew a basic flavor wheel. After I wrote “chocolatey” as a base flavor word, I began to fill in quadrants of the wheel with other typical flavor categories. I wrote “earthy,” “fruity,” “nutty,” and then paused, momentarily blanking on the next category. Immediately, several of the cocoa buying offers chimed together, “Floral, it’s floral!” When I remarked that they had commanded connoisseur methods already, one buying officer said, smiling, “Greg taught us well.”

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Prepared for tasting with palate-cleansing water and notebooks; note the Chocolopolis flavor wheel on Janneh’s laptop screen!

In addition to the Dandelion Gola bar (which of course we tasted again), we tasted other dark bars and a few milks and inclusions. My colleague from Twin, Felicity Butler, had brought bars from the UK, and I had brought several from Ghana, so we had an unusually large number of chocolates to taste—ten or eleven in all. After tasting each one, we discussed the flavor experience. We had a remarkable degree of consistency, with most everyone agreeing if a bar was, for example, nutty or floral. We also tasted several inclusion bars, including the Golden Tree Akuafo bar from Ghana, which is lemon-flavored. I have served the Akuafo bar at many tastings over the years and, as usual, there was the ardent love-it/hate-it split.

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Listening for the well tempered snap
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Looking at, tasting, and listening to chocolate

By the time we finished, it was well past lunch time. As we gathered up our things, we chatted about the chocolates and named our favorites. The winning comment came from Fodie Brima, the producer organization executive who had joined the tasting. For my whole life, I have felt that there could never be too much chocolate. But when I asked Fodie which type of chocolate he preferred, milk, dark, or inclusion, he replied, “I am tired.” Tired! After tasting so much chocolate, he explained, he had no room left to eat rice.

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With Fodie Brima, GACFA chairman, who was tired of tasting chocolate

 

Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part I

As a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, it is not often that I get involved on the trading side. But since early last year, I have been working with the UK-based organization Twin & Twin Trading, whose vision is development through trade, facilitating specialty chocolate market access for cocoa farmer associations in Africa. That means I help farmer groups to promote and sell their cocoa to specialty buyers—who may be paying premium prices for quality, and who may make these farmer groups visible to chocolate shoppers by putting their names on single origin bars.

Apart from Madagascar bars, it is relatively rare in the US to find specialty, single origin chocolate that uses African cocoa, at least compared with bars that use cocoa from Central or South America, or the Caribbean. I started writing about the invisibility of West African cocoa in premium chocolate some years ago; little did I think at the time that I would be part of a team helping to promote the region to specialty buyers.

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Gola’s warehouse manager, Vandi, scoops up a handful of cocoa beans to assess them

But one container at a time, that’s what we have been doing, starting with Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations in Sierra Leone. With assistance from Twin and other partners, farmers in four chiefdoms on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park have organized into three associations to sell their cocoa: Malema chiefdom, Gaura chiefdom, and Tunkia and Koya chiefdoms, which, being a bit smaller than the others, joined together to sell their cocoa. Together, these farmer associations are working to conserve the Gola Rainforest, which is home to many threatened and endemic species, including the elusive pygmy hippo, and to strengthen their cocoa business practices.

Twin and its partners in Sierra Leone have been working for several years with these farmer associations to provide agricultural training, and to support best practices around cocoa harvest, fermentation, drying, and storage. My role has involved building capacity for farmer associations and the Gola staff around marketing, so that they can strategize from an informed position when negotiating with buyers.

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Vandi with bags of cocoa at the warehouse awaiting shipment

When I started this work, bags of cocoa were sitting in the Gola warehouse in Kenema. Knowing we had superior quality cocoa and a unique opportunity to launch Sierra Leone onto the specialty cocoa map, we aimed high—the first container, the team agreed, should be pitched to the US craft market. To the best of our knowledge, no craft maker in the US had produced a single origin specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone before. As confident as I felt in the cocoa, though, I wasn’t sure if any of them would be willing to consider it. In my work over the past fifteen years, I have found that, apart from a very few exceptions (such as John Kehoe and Gary Guittard at Guittard Chocolate, or the folks at Tcho Chocolate), people are generally dismissive, wary, or simply uninterested in West African cocoa for any kind of premium product.

But some people in the chocolate industry are starting to think—and act—differently when it comes to African origins, and especially West Africa. In our conversations about Gola cocoa, these individuals spoke with humility, recognizing that they had a lot to learn about West Africa’s vast cocoa farming systems, and they were eager to begin. Among them were Greg D’Alesandre, who sources for Dandelion Chocolate, and Gino Dalla Gasperina, who founded Meridian Cacao Company. I had a lot to learn from them, too—and all of us had something to learn from the people growing the cocoa and the Gola staff who work with those farmers. Greg and Gino decided to visit Sierra Leone, to see the farms, learn about the  trainings, and discuss priorities and visions with the Gola team, as buyers and sellers of cocoa.

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Photo with Greg (Dandelion Chocolate), Gino (Meridian Cacao), and the Gola team, on the wall at the Gola Rainforest Lalehun research center, where we held the season review last week

And then Greg made the decision to buy the cocoa, which meant Dandelion would make the first ever Gola Rainforest Chocolate bar! Will you forgive me for saying how very proud I am, how even now I have tears and goosebumps, remembering the collective effort it took, and from my gratitude to everyone for working with such dedication and tirelessness, such faith in Gola cocoa? So many people gave this their all, from the cocoa farmers through the Gola buying officers, the agricultural extension team at Jula Consultancy, the trading team at Twin, and right up to Ron Sweetser at Dandelion, who developed the profile for the bar—and, by doing so with enormous care and love, showed everyone just what Sierra Leone Gola Rainforest cocoa can do as a single origin craft chocolate bar.

I will leave it to others to give their assessment of the chocolate, as my own (five star) review of the (most profoundly chocolate) bar (I have ever tasted) will necessarily sound biased at this point. But if you are one of those people who likes chocolate, I do think the Gola Rainforest bar might be one that pleases you (so much that you buy out all the stock in your local shop and eat it for breakfast and create fashion accessories out of the wrappers).

Greg and the team at Dandelion took the first opportunity to share the chocolate with the women and men who had grown the cocoa. The three Gola Rainforest cocoa farmer associations held their season review last week, and I traveled to Sierra Leone to participate. Part of the work was to celebrate the successes of last season, and part of it was to strategize for the coming season. For this, I led a session on chocolate markets, outlining the different categories of chocolate and what advantages and disadvantages there would be to selling into each value chain.

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Presenting to Gola cocoa farmer associations, while business manager Yambasu translates into Mende; photo by Felicity Butler

We talked too about the relationship between Gola and Dandelion, and with other potential buyers, and what they had discussed with Greg and Gino when they visited. I showed maps to chart the journey the Gola cocoa had taken once it left Sierra Leone, and photos of Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory, so that the farmers could see where it was manufactured into chocolate.

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Showing where the Gola Rainforest bar is for sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory; photo by Felicity Butler
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Photos showing farmers their chocolate bar on sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street shop
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Admiring the Dandelion Chocolate bar wrapper, which says “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone”; photo by Felicity Butler

Staff members had taken turns translating my talk into Mende. But when I said that theirs was the first specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone in the US craft market, no translation was needed—the cheers and smiles were immediate!

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Celebrating Gola’s success at the season review meeting; photo by Björn Horvath

 

Then it was time to share the Dandelion Gola Rainforest chocolate bar.

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Dandelion Gola Rainforest Chocolate! Photo by Felicity Butler
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Aminata, Supervisor of Cocoa Extension Team & Gender Coordinator for Gola, shares Dandelion’s Gola chocolate with her colleague Janneh; photo by Felicity Butler
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Mohamed Fofanah, Managing Director of Jula Consultancy, tastes Dandelion chocolate; photo by Björn Horvath

So much of my teaching, research, and writing has been about the negative stereotypes that persist about Africa, and how these damage or undermine so many possibilities for real, material change. Superior cocoa grows in Sierra Leone, and farmers work hard to cultivate and process it. It is not easy to swim against the tide of negative stories about Sierra Leone and indeed all of West Africa. But this is necessary work.

Do the people who work so hard every day to grow excellent cocoa, and who buy and haul and store it, who steward it until it sails away on a container ship—do they not deserve to have their experiences, their labor, their cocoa recognized and esteemed? We all want to be seen, and for our work to be valued.

I think that even more than when they tasted the chocolate, when the farmers, buying officers, and agricultural extension staff saw the words “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone” on the Dandelion bar wrapper, they felt what they had achieved. I saw people’s faces light up with pride. I hope that there is more of the same to come.

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Madame Jebbe, Women’s Leader of the Gaura Cocoa Farmers’ Association; photo by Felicity Butler

It is my privilege and joy to work with the farmers and association executives in Gaura, Malema, Tunkia, and Koya chiefdoms; with the staff (especially Björn Horvath and Katie Sims in Kenema) at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked for decades to conserve and protect the Gola Rainforest and whose idea it was to start a cocoa business in the forest edge communities in the first place; my excellent colleagues at Twin & Twin Trading (especially Hannah Davis, who managed Twin’s contributions from the start, and Deborah Bickler, who kept us all going); Gino at Meridian Cacao, who has been generously helping to build capacity and cocoa expertise for both Twin and Gola; and, of course, Greg and the team at Dandelion Chocolate. Thank you for bringing Gola Rainforest Chocolate into the world.

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Team members from Twin & Gola, looking forward to the future of Gola Rainforest Cocoa!

Cocoa’s recent price rise

On Friday evening last week, we had a remarkable moment of technological globalization in my Accra home–what students who have taken my Globalization class at UW Bothell might recognize as an example of time-space compression. I was sitting upstairs here at my desk, speaking on the phone to Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg Television in New York. Downstairs, my partner was watching the program “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg, and listening to me speak on the segment, “What’s behind the surge in cocoa prices?” The sound signals of the conversation between me and Joe bounced back and forth between Ghana and the US, and when they arrived on our television screen here, they were accompanied by images of me, my new book, Cocoa, price graphics, farms, and factories.

I decided to extend the information loop once again and write a post recapping my explanation of cocoa’s recent price rise for “What’d You Miss?”, and give an update on what’s happened between Friday and today. In just a few days, there is more to add to the story.

When I was putting the final touches on my Cocoa manuscript last year, the ICCO Quarterly Bulletin of Cocoa Statistics forecast a surplus for the 2016-17 cocoa season, which turned out to be correct. To understand why we had a surplus (which means that the total amount of cocoa grown that season was more than was needed for grindings during the same period), we need to look back at what was happening the year before.

About halfway through 2016, an El Niño cycle came to an end. El Niño cycles alternate with La Niña cycles; El Niño is the “warm” cycle and La Niña is the “cool” cycle. As climate change makes El Niño cycles harsher, that translates into drought conditions here in West Africa.

Cocoa needs rainfall to flourish. During the most recent El Niño cycle, drought conditions in Ivory Coast and Ghana meant that the world’s two largest producers were not supplying as much cocoa as usual. This shortened supply had kept cocoa’s price pretty high for several years, above $3000 per metric tonne. Cocoa’s price remained high even as world market prices for other food commodities fell (not to mention the price of oil, which lost 50% or more after 2014).

But then the El Niño cycle ended, and favorable conditions for growing cocoa returned in West Africa. Trees produced more fruit, more cocoa was loaded onto container ships in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and a surplus loomed. This newly heightened supply happened to coincide with a weaker-than-expected demand for chocolate (as measured through the proxy of cocoa grindings). These two conditions–abundant supply, low(er) demand–have only one price outcome: a fall.

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Price in US dollars per MT; I created the chart using ICCO monthly cocoa averages

By the end of 2016, cocoa’s price had lost about a third of its value. For the next year, it hovered around $2000 per metric tonne. With no immediate end in sight to the abundant supply, it was hard to predict when cocoa’s price might rise again.

But starting in January 2018, conditions changed. Though we are not in an El Niño cycle now (although we may enter one again before the end of the year), there were unusually dry conditions in West Africa for a few months. This meant we were looking once again at a potentially straightened supply scenario. As I mentioned last Friday on Bloomberg’s “What’d you miss?”, in the past few weeks there have been periods of heavy rain in Ivory Coast. We have had intermittent rainfall here in Accra, but nothing unusual or damaging. However, in Ivory Coast, far from welcoming the rains during a very dry period, there was concern that the heavy rains might have damaged the delicate cocoa flowers and baby pods, or cherelles, that are now on the trees. These flowers and cherelles will mature for the mid-season crop later this year. While much smaller than the main season crop, which is harvested from about October through March, mid-season crop volume is still large enough to impact price. The possibility of a smaller-than-anticipated mid-season crop put upward pressure on cocoa’s price.

Once again, there was a coincidence with change in demand. In the past week or so, the major processors released their grindings figures for the first quarter of 2018. Because we can’t exactly measure how much chocolate everyone in the world wants to eat, we use cocoa grindings–or the “grinding” down of cocoa beans into liquor, butter, and powder–as a proxy for chocolate demand. For decades, The Netherlands had the world’s largest capacity for grinding cocoa beans, with other countries in Europe (including Germany) also grinding large amounts. Recently, Ivory Coast has expanded its grinding capacity, so much so that now it sometimes surpasses The Netherlands for the position of world’s largest cocoa processor. Because both are processing so much cocoa and can therefore give a sense of chocolate demand, grindings figures from Europe and Ivory Coast can have an impact on cocoa’s price.

First quarter grindings in Europe were 5.5% higher than in the first quarter of 2017; grindings in Ivory Coast were 2% higher than the same period last year. North America’s grindings were actually a little lower than in the first quarter of 2017. But that weaker demand signal was not enough to counter the impact of the higher-than-expected grindings rates from Europe and Ivory Coast. Now, the supply-demand scenario had flipped from 2016: predictions of a lower supply, and a surprisingly high demand. This means that cocoa’s price rose.

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Price in US dollars per MT; I created the chart using ICCO monthly cocoa averages

Because we are not yet finished with April, the ICCO price average for this month is not available. But the daily price has continued to rise, edging above $2800 per metric tonne. Yesterday, April 24, New York futures were at $2821. This is still not as high as we saw during the most recent El Niño cycle, but it is starting to look close.

That was what I could report on Friday for “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg. In the few days since, the story has changed again. Last week, I was reading articles about how Ivory Coast’s rainfall was potentially damaging the mid-season cocoa crop; this week, the articles are all about how the helpful rainfall across West Africa is boosting mid-crop predictions.

In fact, the conditions are looking so favorable that Ivory Coast, at least, is fearful of another surplus and, with it, the inevitable price plunge. The Conseil du Cafe-Cacao, which regulates cocoa and coffee in Ivory Coast, announced that it will suspend its program to help cocoa farmers increase their yields (mainly by distributing high-yield seedlings). We can see from this zig-zag in the cocoa supply news that what we are really dealing with is people’s interpretations of events and subsequent predictions. No one knows whether the mid-season crop will be higher or lower than anticipated. Maybe the rain hurt the flowers; maybe the rain will prove a boon to supply. Every day we get more information and that can help to refine predictions, but the whole thing is pretty much a guessing game.

Where will the price will go from here? I wouldn’t venture a guess right now. The signals are too mixed for me to predict with confidence … although perhaps that is why I am a scholar and not a commodities trader. I like to analyze the signals, not to bet on them!

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Watch my segment, “What’s behind the surge in cocoa prices?” on Bloomberg’s “What’d you miss?”

Read more about cocoa’s price in my new book, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018)

What I learned from my Cocoa book tour

Greetings to all from Accra! I am settling in here after my US Cocoa book tour, and feel so happy to be back. We’re planning to stay here for several years, which is plenty of time for me to conduct a new research project, addressing questions that have lingered in my mind from previous fieldwork.

UW Bothell IAS Professor Kristy Leissle at a signing for her book Coca
At my US Cocoa book launch, University Bookstore, Seattle, photo by Marc Studer

As I get that work underway, I have realized that far from being “complete,” there is so much still to learn from my experience publishing Cocoa. Since I started researching chocolate about fifteen years ago, I have always felt that it was important to reach diverse audiences, and sought opportunities to meet and talk with people in many different roles in the industry, from cocoa farmers to chocolate shoppers. What I learned is that we all have a partial picture of the whole. The reality of cocoa and chocolate is so different, depending on where anyone of us is sitting, and perhaps no one can truly comprehend all the diverse meanings and impacts these goods, culturally, economically, politically, and otherwise.

But … some things are pretty obvious. One is the wide gulf between the people who benefit the most in this industry, who have the most power and privilege, and those who benefit the least, who live and work in vulnerable, oppressive, and marginal circumstances. Encouraging people to bridge that gulf became one of my goals for Cocoa. I hope that when a reader picks up the book, no matter what their experiences may be with cocoa and chocolate, they will learn that other people in this industry may have very different priorities, influence, or opportunities than they do. Maybe they will learn that others are a lot like them, too.

When James Field asked me to distill the central message of the book, in an interview for the Geographical Society “I’m a Geographer” column (Field also published a review of Cocoa for the Geographical magazine), I told him that it was empathy. I encourage every reader to see this industry through someone else’s eyes, and to acknowledge, accept, and respect there are other “truths” to know. This requires that we not be fundamentalist: no matter how much we think we know, nobody knows it all. We all make mistakes. No one person’s experiences tell the whole story, and there is always more to learn.

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The event at A Cappella Books in Atlanta was a highlight of my book tour

If you are in a privileged position in this industry, this might be a challenging thing to do, because it will mean recognizing that other people who are less “successful” might actually know more than you, and might have better insight into how to effect change. I recently spoke at the Chocoa conference in Amsterdam. While sitting in on another panel presentation, I was stunned to hear a representative of one of the largest chocolate companies say that he and his peers in the industry had “no idea” what to do about cocoa’s low price. No idea! Given the vast collective experience of the large companies, which sometimes do suggest that they have a “solution” to the problems of the cocoa world, this was an extraordinarily disingenuous thing to say. To me, that response didn’t really mean that the individual and his peers don’t “know” what to do about price. What it meant was that they are not willing to admit to the reality of those who suffer the most from the pittance we pay for cocoa, to see things from their point of view.

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At the Chocoa conference bookstore, Amsterdam

I hope that Cocoa will offer something meaningful for people who are open to learning, and to being empathetic. The response has been encouraging so far. I recently gave an interview with Megan Thompson for PBS NewsHour, and was thrilled to see this post by Dr. Duru appear shortly afterwards on Investing.com. When I was writing Cocoa, I shared a draft of the section on futures trading with Matt Earlam at Twin Trading, who had previously worked with Anthony Ward. Matt gave me some invaluable feedback, which was that I needed to write in a way that would actually engage Anthony Ward, and hedgers and speculators more generally, and not shut them out. I have done my best since then to be mindful of how I speak, to remember my goal of encouraging empathy. So I was moved by the fact that Dr. Duru, who recently sold all his cocoa futures contracts, watched my PBS interview and found something compelling in my comments about farmers’ low remuneration. To be clear, Dr. Duru didn’t sell his contracts because of my book; he sold them because he believes that cocoa’s price has topped out, at least for the time being. But that he listened, and learned something about a farmer’s reality, felt like a success to me.

I feel grateful to be able to say that my book tour was a success on many measures–eight events in eight US cities, many of them full to capacity, with audiences that included family, friends, adults, children, colleagues, researchers, scholars, writers, chocolate makers, chocolate lovers, marketers, retailers, entrepreneurs, food enthusiasts, and even aspiring politicians. That all these different people came to hear about cocoa politics, and engaged with such warmth and openness and enthusiasm with me, and one another, shows that the world is already full of empathy. But it can do with even more.

I hope that Cocoa will reveal something new to everyone who chooses to spend their time reading it. I thank all those who have welcomed what it has to say, and I truly look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

Selected Press
PBS NewsHour with Megan Thompson
Top of Mind with Julie Rose, BYU Radio
I’m a Geographer by James Field, Geographical
The Six Fifty by Emily Olson

Cocoa Reviews
Financial Times by Peter Chapman
Geographical by James Field

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Final stop on my US Cocoa book tour: Word Bookstore in Brooklyn (where I was born)