Connecting with Cocoa

02/27/2007 - 11:55 AM
As a kid, I loved comic books. Part of the fun was perusing the ads in the back for cheap toys and gag gifts. I still have a soft spot for those useless consumer items, many of which are now made in China. I often wonder, though, what the factory workers who make toys like the gag rat trap think about them, and how they would react if they knew that it sold in the US for $16 – almost a week’s wages.

Surprisingly, this paradigm also exists for many mainstream food products like chocolate. Most consumers are unaware of where their chocolate comes from. Even more surprising is that many of those who produce cocoa beans have never actually tasted a chocolate bar; the heavily processed cocoa / sugar / milk / vanilla product we call chocolate is usually made on another continent from where beans are grown. On a trip to the Ivory Coast earlier this month, a group of TransFair employees and industry representatives witnessed this disconnect first hand. One of my associates brought chocolate bars, and gave some of the long time Ivorian cocoa farmers their first taste of chocolate. A memorable experience for both the giver and receiver.

This sort of massive disconnect between consumers and farmers, farmers and consumer markets, and the land and its native crops leads to a variety of mixed-up or missing market signals. These in turn create some of the large scale problems that Fair Trade tries to address.

Consumer Disconnect from Farmers
In the Ivory Coast, working conditions are often substandard, without enforcement of ILO child labor standards (part of the Fair Trade standard) or even the most basic health and safety practices. Our group noticed that even among Fair Trade cocoa farmers, fresh water is a rare commodity, and malaria is an ever present threat. If consumers don’t know where cocoa is grown, it is hard to imagine them supporting basic farmer necessities in these origin countries. There are only a few Fair Trade cooperatives, and it was clear to our group that basic infrastructure items such as trucks and pre-harvest financing would make lives much easier for these farmers and others like them. Part of Fair Trade is simply raising awareness about the people behind the food supply; cocoa is not grown in Belgium and Holland.

Farmer Disconnect from Consumer Markets
Most West African cocoa is fermented (in banana leaves) and dried on the farms in order to use the fresh mucilage from the bean to develop the bean’s flavor. This means that quality is tied to the work of the individual farms, which in turn determines price. Direct connection to buyers and an understanding of quality measures are critical for farmers to maximize their income. One of the goals of TransFair’s Ivory Coast team was to kick off a ‘train the trainer’ project to assist producers in developing practices to raise the quality of their beans and to pass that knowledge on.

Primal Land Gets a New Crop
Cocoa originated in South America, where it was cultivated and consumed as drinking chocolate by the Mayans and Aztecs. Cocoa was introduced to West Africa only 100 years ago, but 70% of the world cocoa supply now comes from West Africa – primarily Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Cocoa (like coffee) was traditionally a shade grown crop. In the Ivory Coast, however, most of the shade is being converted to firewood. The intensive clear-cut cocoa farming commonly used in Africa is rough on the land, depleting the soil in 10-20 years and creating long term natural and economic damage. It also leads to deforestation as farmers seek new ‘fresh’ land for crops. Sustainable farming methods are an answer, but lead to short term yield reduction. A small farmer who makes perhaps $500 on his cocoa crop -- of which half or more is production cost -- needs the money now. Without economic rewards for sustainability, farmers simply can not afford it. One of the goals of Fair Trade is to assist and reward producers in adapting more sustainable practices.

Next: Mackey and Pollan at Zellerbach
02/27/2007 - 11:55 AM
02/27/2007 - 11:55 AM