My Ecuador trip last week marks my 10th year of traveling to origin learning about and sourcing cocoa beans from farmers around the equator band of the world. Many things have changed, but many remain a constant:
The same: I still love the travel. I travel to each of our 4 origins every year (Ecuador, Honduras, Tanzania and the Philippines). The trips seem get a little longer each year. For example, door to door for me to Tanzania is about 55 hours. Last week I sat on the tarmac in Miami for 3 hours waiting for a storm to pass and missed several successive flights home. No problem. I love the airports, the people, the excitement, the hotels, pretty much all of it. That has not changed in over a million miles on American Airlines alone. Travel is not mundane and will always be an inspiration. Changed: When I started traveling to origin countries in 2005 there was basically no internet access and I used AT&T calling cards to talk to my wife or the chocolate factory back home. I remember the days of walking long distances to find an internet cafe. In the last year or so I have found myself pining for the days of challenging connectivity. It was kind of a forced tech sabbatical. This past summer I noticed that I had better cell signal in remote Tanzania than I did on the Arkansas - Missouri border.
The same: The hospitality I’ve received from farmers around the world has not changed and neither has my response to it. In fact, I’ve noticed the hospitality moves me more and more instead of it becoming old hat. Farmers have welcomed me into their homes, fed me, taken me with them to church, prayed for me, given me gifts and it never ever gets old. I could write a book on the hospitality of the rural poor. I am thankful it’s unchanged and strong as ever. Changed: This is kind of inside baseball but I have noticed an overall improvement in the quality of the beans I see around the world in my travels. I am not talking about our beans but all beans in general. This is a good thing for chocolate lovers everywhere.
The same: The sad corollary to #4 is that while quality is up prices paid to farmers are not. The world market price - factoring inflation - has remained stagnant for about 30 years. The bottom line is that the world market commodity price is not high enough to attract farmers to this crop and more importantly the next generation. We pay our farmer partners well above the market price but we’re a tiny speck on the tidal wave of price stagnation.
Changed: After 10 years of direct trading with farmers on 4 continents the stress of getting the beans out of the country and into the US as importer, the stress of maintaining relationships with poor farmers from another culture, the stress of maintaining quality, the stress of the economy, all of it has improved dramatically. The driver I’ve used in Ecuador for many years commented at dinner last week, “Shawn, I cant recall ever seeing you this peaceful, this content.” Man, that felt good! I’m grateful for this change and will not take it for granted.