A researcher’s thanks to Divine Chocolate

This past Valentine’s weekend, I enjoyed a brief visit to London. For a trip that was short on time, it was profound for me as a researcher. In the midst now of writing the volume Cocoa for the Polity Press Resources series, I am thinking too of the fact that the few words of thanks that appear in every book’s “Acknowledgements” section never do justice to the contributions of those thanked individuals. So it’s nice to have a blog, where I can say “thank you” in at least a few more words.

My meeting this past week with Sophi Tranchell (Managing Director) and Charlotte Borger (Communications Director) at Divine Chocolate was inspirational, thought-provoking, and a true pleasure. While incredibly helpful for my current research, I realized that our conversation built upon a much longer history of support and encouragement from Divine in my work, which has shaped me as a scholar.

My first encounter with the company was as a doctoral candidate. In 2005, I spent a year in the field, moving slowly westward from Seattle, through Asia-Pacific growing regions and Asian and Middle Eastern consumer hotspots, until I reached my main research area: Ghana. One of my goals there was to conduct fieldwork with Kuapa Kokoo, the Fairtrade-certified cooperative, which supplies cocoa for Divine Chocolate.

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From the Divine USA website: Welcome to chocolate!

My years of preparation as a PhD student had provided an idea of what research would entail. I spent months developing survey tools, having those vetted by professors and the UW Human Subjects committee, and double checking my hypotheses against those of learned scholars. My committee members—the professors who guided me through my PhD—had all talked me through the process multiple times, encouraging me to be open to challenges as well as discoveries. But I had to live that myself before I could recognize the wisdom of what they were saying.

I can’t remember exactly what was going through my mind at the time, and perhaps I have blocked out the more embarrassing details of my “green-ness” as a researcher. But I know I imagined that research would be simply there for the taking. That farmers would be ready, able, and willing to share their expertise and experiences with me, a stranger who wanted to understand and write about their labor.

This was despite having spent years studying feminist and development studies critiques of “traditional” research protocols. These critiques make it plain that the scenario of a “knowledge producer” arriving in a foreign context and immediately comprehending cultural, social, economic, and political norms well enough to conduct meaningful inquiry was, frankly, delusional.

While intellectually I understood that, it didn’t always guide my expectations when it came to getting the work done. Though I had lived in West Africa prior to my doctoral fieldwork, I’d barely been on a farm. My ideas about what I would find in Ghana’s cocoa industry had almost no basis in lived experience. This is all a long way of saying that when I turned up in Ghana, I had little idea how to proceed.

It turns out that research requires help. I needed to find people who were immersed in Ghana and in cocoa, and who were not just able but willing to provide assistance. This assistance was basically everything, from trucks to drive around in, to cultural interpreters who could explain to me what I was seeing in the field. I realized this (almost) right away, and set out to find such help. Happily, I did find it, and one of the first people to open a door for me was Sophi Tranchell.

One moment I do remember distinctly: sitting in a sodden, flooded guesthouse room in Kumasi after a heavy rain, talking on my cellphone to Sophi in London. She talked through my research questions with me, offered critiques and advice, and suggested other resources that would help me understand the environment I was in. It was my first conversation after arriving in Ghana that gave me hope I might actually be able to complete my project. It laid the first stone on a path that I finally realized I had to pave myself: the road to research was not ready-made and waiting for me to walk down it. Crucially, Sophi also made the necessary introductions for me to Kuapa Kokoo, and from there, I was able to get properly to cocoa farms.

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A much younger me, happy to be researching at last, on a Kuapa Kokoo member farm
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Months later, with Afia, a cocoa farmer, after an enlightening discussion

We met in person when I arrived in London later that year, continuing my fieldwork in the chocolate consumer context of Britain. Sophi and I sat in the Divine conference room, as we did again this past Monday, talking through my research in Ghana. I noticed on the walls a series of advertisements for Divine Chocolate, featuring women farmers from Kuapa Kokoo. That turned out to be another watershed moment for me as a scholar of this industry. Captivated by the powerful images of women farmers holding pieces of chocolate in their hands, I asked Sophi to tell me more about them. I went on to write a chapter about those images in my dissertation, and in 2012 to publish an article about them in the Journal of African Cultural Studies. I have taught about those images in my classes too, for more than a decade now.

After earning my PhD, when I had become faculty at the University of Washington, I undertook another research project with Divine. This time, I studied the impacts of Fairtrade programs, especially women’s groups, among Kuapa Kokoo farmer societies. It was revelatory to return to the place where I had done my doctoral fieldwork. This time, I went to Ghana with a new preparedness: that of knowing that I did not know what I would find. It was indeed a strength to now be familiar—intimate, even—with my research context, having spent so much time there already; this helped me develop better research tools. But it was an even greater strength to recognize that I was there to learn. My return allowed me to see once again the power of humility, of letting the context shape my knowledge, rather than imposing my ideas upon it.

And now, my most recent research has once again benefited from the generosity and expertise of the people at Divine Chocolate. Sophi and Charlotte have vast knowledge of this industry, and are incredibly articulate of that knowledge. My conversation with them not only forwarded my understanding, it raised my expectations of myself for the book I am writing. In my nearly fifteen years of studying this industry, I am so grateful once again for the allies and guides who have pointed the way forward. So thank you, Divine.