Reconnecting With Farmer Partners
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years. It feels like it’s been so much longer, but when I go and visit our origins, I feel the same sense of awe that I felt at the beginning. It’s always a hard trip, early morning flights, bumpy roads, and rooster calls as dawn breaks, but reconnecting with our farmer partners and seeing the cocoa pods and beans is worth it. Lawren and I could think of no better way to celebrate our 15-year anniversary of creating bean-to-bar craft chocolate than with an origin trip to visit our farmer partners in Mababu, Tanzania.
Due to Covid, it’s been 2.5 years since our last origin trip. Saraphiner, our Tanzania Field Representative & Program Coordinator, has helped us connect to the Mababu CCF farmers. We’ve kept in contact weekly via Zoom, WhatsApp, and more but it is not the same. I can’t visit their shambas and help our farmers assess the trees, harvest cocoa pods, or help get the beans to the fermentation boxes over WhatsApp.
I can’t truly put into words what it was like to see our farmer partners again. It was joyful to see the new babies, the happy unions, and their growing farms. But it was also sad- I mourned the farmer partners who have passed and paid my respects to their families, visiting the widow of one farmer partner who died a few months ago. I surveyed the shambas which have been massively impacted by flooding and discussed with the farmers what the recovery process will look like.
While I saw a multitude of changes to the village of Mababu, where we source our amazing Trinitario cocoa beans, there was also a lot that hasn’t changed– the kindness of our farmer partners, their commitment to their community, and their unparalleled dedication to the craft of cacao cultivation.
Our farmer partners give 100% so we can give 100%. Our excellent, ethical chocolate starts with them. Only the highest-quality beans make it into bags destined for our factory in Missouri– the farmers adhere to our specifications carefully and regularly discard beans that they determine don’t meet our standards (don’t worry, those beans get sold elsewhere).
Only the best-of-the-best beans make it into your chocolate bars, which means better-tasting chocolate, which means selling MORE chocolate, which means more money in the hands of our farmer partners (thanks to our commitment to profit-sharing). When you buy one of our chocolate bars you’re not just getting a great-tasting bar, you’re putting money in our farmer partners’ pockets. Every bar of Tanzania chocolate that is sold directly benefits the lives of our Tanzanian farmer partners.
Empowered Girls & Enlightened Boys
Lawren and I always enjoy meeting with the students of the Empowered Girls & Enlightened Boys clubs The Chocolate University Foundation sponsors in partnership with our farmer partners. For us, Visioning is super important- after all, we have an entire chapter dedicated to it in our book Meaningful Work. I believe that every person (and every business) should have a Vision- or a plan for the future. Lawren and I began teaching the practice to the Empowered Girls students way back in 2015.
Now our Tanzania Field Representative & Program Coordinator, Saraphiner, continues to help students define their futures with this intention-setting exercise. She’s taught Visioning to thousands of students over the last few years, and I was lucky enough to get to witness these students celebrating goals that help them reach their ultimate vision. More than 300 enthusiastic students gathered in a brick-walled auditorium at the foothill of Mt. Livingston, for club meetings to celebrate Visions in action. Called “maono” in Swahili, a Vision allows students to plan for their future- and we see success in action as they reach their goals.
They incorporate their Vision into their daily lives, they discuss it with their peers in club meetings to hold each other accountable, and most importantly, they put the work in to make their vision a reality. They even sing songs about their personal visions! It’s incredibly powerful and inspiring, and I was honored to meet one-on-one with several students who were recipients of the Maono Scholarship this year. This scholarship provides funds to help them attend advanced education.
What else goes on in the Enlightened Girls and Empowered Boys programs? Students develop and implement entrepreneurship programs, like raising goats and growing flowers. In these programs, students are taught self-worth. In addition to topics like family planning, teamwork and collaboration, and leadership skills–all students, both male and female– are taught the importance of gender justice, female autonomy, and challenging cultural norms. They have access to meals and textbooks. Female students are also supplied with period products.
Why is The Chocolate University Foundation involved? What does this have to do with chocolate? Well, everything and nothing. Everything because these programs are also sponsored by our farmer partners in the village, who serve as mentors for the students. Nothing because this work is so much bigger than me, than the company, bigger than chocolate.
Celebrating the Wins
I speak for everybody at Askinosie Chocolate when I say we are proud to make chocolate that’s won dozens of awards. And we share each and every one with our farmer partners. I know firsthand how much work, time, and dedication goes into producing a winning bar, the first–and most important–stage is growing, fermenting, and drying beans of the highest quality because when I’m on an origin visit, I always help the farmers as they work- and trust me, it’s hard work.
Our farmer partners, who practice environmentally sustainable, slave-free cocoa farming, are integral to our success. When we win an award, we share it with them–not because we want to make them feel good (though, we do)--but because they deserve it.
I presented 3 separate accolades from the last 2+ years for chocolate bars we make using the outstanding cocoa beans grown and post-harvested by the Mababu CCF including a Good Food Awards finalist banner and a plaque commemorating an International Chocolate Award & Academy of Chocolate award.
Directly preceding the presentation of our shared awards, was our annual profit share meeting. We continued our profit share meetings during the pandemic, conducted via WhatsApp, which, I’ve already ranted about a little earlier in this travelogue. I’ve missed this ceremony in-person. It’s a chance for us to thank the farmers, face to face, for all their hard work.
On a cloudy day with Mt. Livingston as the backdrop, I reviewed our financials, line-by-line, with the co-op leader, Mama Mpoki. I then presented her with their profit share funds in cash form. What they do with these funds is up to them- but the farmers choose to invest much of their profit back into their business, communal spaces, homes, and shambas.
The Mababu CCF also give back to their community by sponsoring orphans at the Chekechea (preschool) they run, supporting widows who want to be members of the CCF, and volunteering their team to mentor Empowered Girls & Enlightened Boys students.
A Sweet Sendoff
My last day in Tanzania was a truly sweet one. When I first began traveling to origin way back in 2005, I discovered that no farmer had ever tasted the chocolate that their beans became. Some of them had never tasted chocolate, period. Thus, chocolate tastings on every trip were born. It’s important for our farmers to taste our chocolate because it allows them to experience and feel pride in the final product.
The entire bar-making process is one of collaboration, but we know our award-winning chocolate starts with successful sustainable cocoa farming. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do (make incredible chocolate) if they didn’t do what they do (produce the best beans ever). Our bars are the final product, but their origin story is beautiful- farmers growing and harvesting bright cocoa pods, then expertly fermenting beans, and finally, packing up the beans for their journey to our micro-factory.
On every origin trip we make, we bring bars (and snacks, like our Malt Balls) for our farmer partners to try. I love seeing their reactions- it’s really humbling. There’s a light in their eyes and big smiles on their faces as they savor the sweetness. It helps me truly feel that ya, our chocolate is that good! Seeing all of their joy and pride was the best possible way to round out a trip that celebrates our fifteenth year of Direct Trade chocolate production.
Direct Trade is the cornerstone of all we do. From profit-sharing to translating contracts into their language and ensuring they understand them before they sign, we think deeply about our connection to our farming partners. It’s not just business. We care about them, and they care about us. Traveling back to Tanzania made me realize what community truly means. Co-op members call us their kin and inquire after us. When my granddaughter was born, they were some of the first to see her via video call. They share their lives with us, and we share ours with them. In a lot of ways, going back to Tanzania felt like a homecoming.