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.

chocoa bookstore
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)
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Cocoa events – US tour starts soon

I have been having a fantastic time here in the UK and Europe promoting Cocoa, my new book on geopolitics and more. It has been a full month, with an event every week.

On February 1, I had my book launch in London at the Chocolate Museum. There was a great turnout, which always feels good, and I was honored to have remarks by Sophi Tranchell, Managing Director at Divine Chocolate, who has known me as a researcher since my first fieldwork in Ghana. Tomas and Maria at the Chocolate Museum hosted me with real warmth and enthusiasm for chocolate education, and Erik Houlihan-Jong was a superstar for leading a tasting of Divine chocolate.

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Cocoa and chocolate ready for my book launch at the Chocolate Museum

Next up was an event at St. Edmund Hall, my old college at Oxford. I gave a talk about Cocoa and led a chocolate tasting in the Old Dining Hall, where I had attended many events as a student. It was an honor and a pleasure to be back at the Hall, hosting an event of my own.

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Old Dining Hall, Teddy Hall, all set up for my Cocoa book event

The following week, I returned to Oxford to give a talk at the Conservation & Development brown-bag lunch series at the School of Geography and the Environment, at the invitation of Alex Morel, Connie McDermott, and Mark Hirons. I decided to present my very early thinking about my next project, on chocolate marketing, and was grateful for the lively and thought-provoking discussion that followed. I also took the opportunity after the brown bag to walk over to Blackwell’s bookstore and sign copies of Cocoa. It was a life highlight! As a student at Oxford, I had spent hours in the vast Norrington Room downstairs at Blackwells, browsing the shelves. I promised myself all those years ago that one day *I* would have a book on a shelf in the Norrington Room, and it was very moving to realize that dream.

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Signing copies of Cocoa in the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s in Oxford

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After that, I packed my bags for a few days in Amsterdam at the Chocoa conference. On Friday, I spoke on a talk-show style panel about my work with Twin & Twin Trading, helping to link Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations with specialty markets. Earlier in the week, I had thoroughly enjoyed a tour of the Amsterdam port, largest in the world for cocoa, and one of the enormous warehouses. We saw no less than 3000 MT of cocoa piled up into a mountain and of course I waded through. When I got back to my guesthouse that night and took off my boots, so many beans rolled out onto the floor! Though I have long studied the commodity trade, my firsthand experience with cocoa trading and chocolate manufacture is typically in the specialty segment, which operates on a relatively small scale. It was an eye-opener to witness the scale of the bulk bean industry up close.

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With a mountain of cocoa beans at an Amsterdam warehouse

And now I am back in Hertfordshire, packing up the house in preparation for my move to Ghana. All our possessions will set sail on a cargo ship in just a week, but before I follow my belongings (and partner!) to Accra, I will have a few weeks in the US to promote Cocoa on the west and east coasts. If you are in any of the cities below, I certainly hope to see you there.

Upcoming US events for Cocoa

US launch!
SEATTLE
7 March, 7pm

University Bookstore
4326 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
with Divine Chocolate & Guittard Chocolate tastings

SAN FRANCISCO
8 March, 6:30pm
Omnivore Books on Food
3885a Cesar Chavez Street
San Francisco, CA 94131
with Guittard Chocolate tasting

PALO ALTO
9 March, 7pm

The Chocolate Garage
Register here for this event
with Dandelion Chocolate tasting

PORTLAND
12 March, 7:30pm

Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97214
with Dandelion Chocolate tasting

ATLANTA
13 March, 7pm
A Cappella Books
208 Haralson Ave NE
Atlanta, GA 30307
with Divine Chocolate tasting

ROSWELL
14 March, 6pm
(following regional FCIA meeting)
CocoaTown
108 Oak Street, Suite B
Roswell, Georgia 30075
with chocolate tastings

BOSTON – NEW VENUE!
15 March, 7pm
Taza Chocolate
561 Windsor Street
Somerville MA 02143

A very speedy recovery to Trident Booksellers
https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2018/03/01/trident-booksellers-temporarily-closed-after-fire/wjLiVESjgfpxWZm4pEQpXM/story.html

BROOKLYN
18 March, 4pm

Word Bookstore
126 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
with Divine Chocolate tasting