There’s A Deep Deep Sorrow In Some Cocoa Beans: So What Should We Do?

The market price of cocoa beans has remained unchanged in the last 30 years when adjusted for inflation.(1) Wait. What? Read that sentence again. And to make matters worse the world market price these days is dramatically low. As low as I have seen it in years. That’s great news for Big Cocoa (the 8 or so companies the buy the majority of cocoa in the world). But the low price of that cocoa bean–and consequently the chocolate–is on the backs of struggling cocoa farmers who are living on less than $2 per day. It’s akin to modern day slavery, a sort of neo-slavery, but sophisticated because of obtuse supply chains. In other words, Big Cocoa has plausible deniability.

DSCF3724In recent years Big Cocoa has implemented many social programs from schools to clinics to improved farm yields to reforestation initiatives. This is not “social washing,” because these projects are probably real. They have long names that usually end in a year; something like “Sustainable Cocoa 2030.” There are so many projects and initiatives for this, that, and the other that it’s impossible to keep track. I read about them every day in industry newsletters. That means the PR firms for Big Cocoa are cranking out press releases announcing Big Cocoa to the rescue. Then come the cool PowerPoints. In reality, X program might make a terrible life a little more bearable, slightly more human. But it’s as if these projects and programs are designed to keep us from remembering that many cocoa farmers are living a subhuman existence. To be clear, I am speaking mostly of the farmers in West Africa. The farmers are beholden to Big Cocoa, with no choices, no power, no voice. Big Cocoa indirectly controls the market price. The farmers were already in the depths of poverty which is only made worse by the terribly low world market price of cocoa this year.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor to look at the simple math supporting this proposition that these farmers are unbearably poor. The World Cocoa Foundation states that the average cocoa farmer has between two and four hectares (five to ten acres), yielding between 300 and 400 kg per hectare in Africa. Here is the breakdown: assume our West African farmer has 3.5 hectares (conservatively)  and that his yield is 450 kg per hectare. That means the farmer has 1,575 kg yield on his farm. The world market commodity price has been hovering around $2 per kg. This means that the total yield on the farm of 1,575 kg (if the farmer’s buyer received the world market price) multiplied by $2 would equal $3,170. But, our farmer (in the case of Ghana) will only receive 70% (or less) of the world market price. The other money (30% or more) is siphoned off in a highly complex government controlled buying system. This reduces our farmer’s income on these cocoa beans to $2,205 annually. When we divide that number by 365 days in the year, that puts him or her at $6.04 per day. The way we look at these numbers, however, is by dividing yet again by the average number in the household. In this case it’s 6, so our farmer and family are living, somehow, on $1 per day. The United Nations defines “extreme poverty” as less than $1.25 per day and “poverty” is below $1.90 per day. If the world market price was at $3 per kg as it was 12 months ago, then our farmer’s per capita income would be $1.51 per day assuming the other variables as true in my example. You see where I am headed with this?

DSCF3510Message to Big Cocoa: you really want to help cocoa farmers? Four words. Pay. Them. More. Money. And make sure it gets to the actual farmers. “Not that simple,” you say. The truth is that it is. “We would sacrifice too much profitability,” you say. Not likely. All of us in the industry understand the other variable costs and the effect higher prices paid to farmers will have on margin. I understand that it’s in your financial interest and thus your duty to shareholders to not only control the price of cocoa but keep it low (but not so low that it threatens your supply). If consumers are eating a cheap chocolate bar there’s probably a reason it’s so cheap and it’s not because the manufacturer is the most efficient company in the world. Big Cocoa has the power to give freedom to many cocoa farmers by simply paying them more money.

You might be thinking, “Why would Shawn care since they don’t buy beans from West Africa?” Over the last eleven years, we’ve paid our farmers, on average 48% more than they would have otherwise received at their farm gate and we’ve documented it here for our customers to read and review. Why? Well, we do it for our customers and to hold ourselves accountable. We want to constantly assess how we can do better. Our system of profit sharing and opening our books to the farmers in their native language is good but it’s not perfect. The system of cocoa bean buying in Ghana is so complicated that I gave up after two years of really trying to deep dive into the intricacies and crack the code. I don’t quit easily but it was just too byzantine and government controlled in Ghana to fit our model of direct trade. But, we at Askinosie Chocolate, should not let ourselves off so easily. We are part of the larger world of chocolate, even of chocolate made from beans on the backs of struggling farmers we’ve never met in West Africa. Joseph Campbell says we are called to, “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” What’s “the world”? Well, that depends. Right now, to me, it means the world of cocoa beans. I often talk and write about the juxtaposition of sorrow and joy and the mysteries of both. I am at a loss though to find joy in this story. A story in which I see nothing but pain, powerlessness, silence, hunger.

I suppose then I am called to create the joy in this saga. I can think of two things that will help. First, please consider buying good chocolate this Valentine’s Day for the ones you love. Might I suggest some others than us, such as Dandelion Chocolate, French Broad Chocolates, or Harper Macaw to name a few? I am certain you will not be disappointed. There are many more. I ask that you search us out, try us and engage with us to change the channel on Big Cocoa. Second, I am not suggesting that you never buy another Snickers Bar but I am hoping that you will look into the issues I raise here and perhaps apply your mindfulness muscle to ask yourself if it is a good or bad idea to support Big Cocoa with your hard-earned money.

Footnotes

1. The commodity price of one metric ton of cocoa beans in 1985 was $2,342.19. In today’s dollars that would be $5,187.56, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. The price today for one metric ton is roughly $2,000.

Barely Better Than A Poke In The Eye With A Sharp Stick

At least for now.  It’s going to get better real soon.

It’s 2:30am and I am sitting here, outside, at domestic terminal #2 of the Manila airport on a metal bench, basically in the dark, waiting for the terminal to open so I can catch my 4am flight to Davao. What about waiting in the Admiral’s Club you ask? Ha ha. That’s funny. I ended up taking the bus down here. I usually walk but everyone said it’s too dangerous this time of night.  After 40 hours of travel so far I needed to knock out the cobwebs [Springfield > Chicago > Hong Kong > Manila > Davao]. I took a minute to duck into a restroom to deploy one of my travel secrets (acquired from my Africa travel partner Dr. Tom Prater): put on a fresh shirt and socks. I wish there were words to describe how good those socks and shirt made me feel. A “new man” as it were for at least a couple of hours. The humidity is thick. It’s almost the point in the trip when I say to myself, “What the hell am I doing this for?” but that will come in a few hours when I have arrive at my hotel and check in around 7am. Then I will start my work day. Unpacking my little carry-on in my room, that’s when I will say that.

I often talk about the mashup between suffering and joy in the book. The almost mystical nature of that recipe can really get you down and then take you up to the mountaintop in one fell swoop. There’s a catch. Most of the time [read: never] we don’t get to decide how much of either to put into our concoction. Don’t get me wrong this is not full on suffering. It’s low grade uncomfortable.

[This part written during my 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong]. This trip marks my 10th year of visiting Davao and working with the same lead farmer all of these years. I know his wife, kids, and grandkids. I’ve been to church with his family and I know his pastor. I have had many many meals with him. Everyone who knows me knows that I love this kind of travel. I still stress out the week before I go with all of the things to do piling up before I leave. Even after more than 10 years of sitting on these benches it remains exciting.

I can think of two reasons why I still do this and they both might apply to your business too.

First. Quality: I’ve written extensively about the inseparability of the way we are as a company and the quality of our chocolate. The same applies to your work too. Who we are and how we behave in 90% of cases is inextricably bound up in the thing we make or service we provide. Pretty soon I will have meals with farmers, inspect the next crop of beans I am currently buying, give feedback on last years crop, test roast some beans over open fire, check moisture content and distribute a profit share on our last crop. All of these things impact the quality of the beans that we will receive in a few months. Some might say, “Sheesh Shawn, do you really need to go every year? You’ve been doing business with the same folks for all this time. What could possibly happen? Couldn’t you just skip a couple of years?” The answer is an emphatic “no” that I need to go. The minute we let our focus drift from quality then the end of the slippery slope is a product tasting like sawdust. After a few years we’d all be scratching our heads at the factory asking “how did that happen?” We know how this happens! It happens when we no longer practice the tough stuff because we listen to a little voice in our heads (that sounds an awful lot like our own voice, which is very persuasive) and says “You’re an expert, you’ve seen these beans for 10 years, it’ll be fine, your body is not as young as once was and when you’re sitting outside the domestic terminal in Manila you’ll beeee soooorry.” But, the question is: are we professionals or not? Are we going to run wind sprints or not? Are we going to do one more pull up or not? Yes. That’s what we do. That is how great chocolate is made. How do you think it is that we’ve made great tasting chocolate CONSISTENTLY for over ten years? This is how. I am not saying there’s never been an off crop year. What I am saying is that we’ve been doing wind sprints consistently for over ten years. I am certain that if you’re making something great then you’re doing them too! Almost anyone can make a great thing or have a great service for a year or two. Pounding it out through many batches of suffering and joy year after year after year means you’re doing the hard work even when you want to ask yourself “Why the hell am I here?” It’s not lost on me that our farmers might have thought this same thing to themselves toiling, struggling in sometimes physical pain and exhaustion only to do it all over again tomorrow. We do our level best to make it worth their while (read more about that here).

Second. Another no less important reason I do all of this, go to the trouble, endure, is that it’s a tether to my vocation, the work that drew me to starting a chocolate factory so many years ago. Sure I could send someone else to do this. And I have taken others from my factory to other countries. I am not the only person in my factory who knows what a great bean looks, smells, and tastes like. But, as I said in a keynote talk I gave on Friday at 417ThinkSummit, I know something good is going to happen on this trip. I don’t know when, where, or how this will be but I know that I will have a glimpse of my true self here. The reason I know it is because it’s happened so many times and I am open to it. I am open to encounters of joy and sorrow. So being here is one of my tethers to this work. It means that I won’t float off under the disguise of scale and growth and delegation and management disconnected and unable to the reach human connection that brought me to this place in my life. I know you can think of examples of tethers in your business, those things that brought you there. They’re still there waiting for you. But you’ll have to re-establish the habit of returning to this discipline of staying tethered. No matter what.

 

Restoration Hardware: You Might Need A Retreat in 2018

Assumption Abbey Photo .jpg

It’s a cool store and all but that’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about what you might consider as you look at the unfolding year in front of you. Taking a retreat (or two) this coming year could be the opportunity for your very own restoration hardware and software of body and soul. I’ve written extensively about my retreats to Assumption Abbey in my new book, Meaningful Work. My retreating to the guesthouse of this Trappist monastery, located in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest in Southern Missouri, started 17 years ago. The gravitational pull of this holy ground is fully described in the book. My retreats deepened over the years to the point that four years ago I decided to become Family Brother. I’m no longer a guest but when I visit the abbey, as I did this past week, I live behind the cloister with the monks, and fully participate in their rhythm of prayer and work. But I am getting way ahead of myself so let’s back up and dive in to the “how” you can take a retreat in 2018. I am not going to take time to talk about “why” we all need our hardware and software restored and make the presumption you know who you are. And further presume that you feel this need down deep in your bones. Let’s jump in.

  1. Schedule your retreat and put it on the calendar. Tim Ferriss is right about this; schedule it now, block off the time, buy a plane ticket, make a reservation, do something that will lock you in and diminish the likelihood of cancelling it.
  2. “Time apart from the world” is what the monks call it. How much time should that be? My retreats at Assumption have always been three to five days. I would take longer time if I could and encourage you to try it if your schedule permits. Less than three and it’s not really worth it since it takes me a minimum of 24 hours (more in my earlier days) to settle down without a cell signal or any access to Wi-Fi. I can begin to feel the rhythm of the place at about 48 hours.
  3. Where to go? There are many retreat and meditation centers around the world. There are monasteries all over the world with guest housing. There are forty Benedictine and thirteen Trappist monasteries here in the U.S. that have guest facilities. Most of these places are very inexpensive asking only for a small nightly donation. It’s important to remember that these spots are not The Four Seasons. I will say, however, that guests are very important in all monasteries because in most contemplative traditions hospitality is a critical facet of spirituality. The Benedictine Rule, for example, devotes an entire chapter to the topic, stating, “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.” You might be wondering if a retreat necessitates staying at a religious guesthouse. Of course not. You could stay home and have a retreat, rent a cabin in the woods near you, or pitch a tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. Likewise you may ask if it’s okay to go to a religious place for a retreat, even if you’re not religious and the answer is yes. At my abbey, for example, nobody is expected or required to attend any the five prayer services per day open to the public. There are no monks trying to convert anyone. If you are having trouble finding the right place let me humbly suggest Assumption Abbey, home of the best fruitcakes this side of heaven. Give our guesthouse manager,Jill, a call at the and she will set you up. That way you’ll have an excuse to stop by a chocolate factory that I know located in the town you’ll be flying into before traveling to the monastery.
  4. Who should you go with? My short answer is: yourself. Go alone. There are many types of structured group retreats you can attend which include learning and group discussion and those are indeed beneficial but that is not what I am talking about here. My retreat is one of solitude. This takes a lot of courage because most of us are not used to being alone with the thoughts in our heads that dart from one place to the next. We’re not accustomed to it because we’re able to tamp them down and keep them just below the surface with scrolling, likes, views, shares and retweets. I’ve been retreating for 17 years and sometimes it’s still hard for me. In fact, sometimes it’s downright painful. Sounds like so much fun! Then “why the hell would you want to do this?” you ask. Thomas Merton says “Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled even from yourself.” Wait, that might be the comfy quote I was looking for. There’s a point here I promise. The point is that once we can settle in and dip just below the surface of our monkey minds we can find rest and deepen the search for our true selves. And even experience glimpses of pure joy in the process.
  5. What’s the retreat agenda? This is a trick question because an agenda of questions we’re hoping to answer is generally not a good idea and often results in disappointment. I know this from hard earned experience. A general intention for our retreat is a great idea, however. For example, during my visit this past week, while not really a “retreat” my intention was to restart my practice of “centering prayer” as a method of resting in God’s presence. Obviously, we might think in advance, “on this day I want to hike in the mornings and pray at these times and journal at this time.” For the most part, I recommend that you leave big blocks of time for being alone with no agenda but thought, rest, reflection, prayer, walking and writing. It’s tempting to have long conversations with other guests but I’d suggest resisting it as a possible distraction from your solitude. At my abbey you can ask to speak with a monk, the Guestmaster, if you’d like and that can be productive. I tell people to generally schedule that conversation for the next to the last day of the retreat in order to have time to settle down and quiet your mind. However, if the anxiety level is super high at the outset it might be a good to chat with one of the monks right at the beginning or even before you arrive.

A retreat in solitude can be restful and recharge your batteries. Mostly, though, it gives us a chance to momentarily experience our true selves once we reduce the noise. The greatest benefit of a retreat is the awareness that you can “bring it with you” into the world after your time apart. I have yet to master this but I am working on it, details in the book.

Happy Birthday Morrie! (the one from Tuesday’s With Morrie)

Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.

Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.

Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.

I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.  

Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”

Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now. 

CU2018

More Is Not Enough: At Least In Mababu, Tanzania It’s Not

A cocoa tree canopy overhead made it seem even darker than it was as the sun was setting. I was walking on a narrow trail in the maze of other trails crisscrossing each other in the Tanzanian rainforest with a small group of cocoa farmers and pretty sure if I didn’t keep up that Google Maps would be of no help. Anyone who knows me knows that I love walking and talking. It’s my chance to ask questions. We’d just visited Wilson’s kinfolk on his little farm who were mourning his death a month ago. We went to pay our respects to his family and say “pole sana.” We sat under a large shade tree in front of his house and as I listened to his siblings tell stories I remembered his kind face. He’d been sick for a long time they said. He was an original member of the small cocoa farming cooperative where I’ve been sourcing beans for many years. We gathered for a moment of silence around his tidy dirt grave decorated with a small wooden cross next to his wife’s and a few feet from their house. The walk back to the village center with Mama Mpoki – the Chairwoman of the cooperative – and four other farmers got me thinking which led to conversation.

 As we walked back I was pondering the ways in which the villagers respond to each other in times of death and grief. I played the tape in my mind from a few days before when the farmers all gathered at their central fermentation and drying site in the middle of the village and worked together to move our fermented cocoa beans onto the nearby drying pads in the sun. They stand shoulder to shoulder–men and women and mothers and grandmothers carrying babies in a sling–and pass buckets of beans to each other, all the way down the line. They laugh, talk, and gossip and I loved working right alongside them. The word is joy. Joy is pretty much universally recognizable in any culture. I’ve observed it during shared meals, at worship, while working and walking. So I asked Mama Mpoki, “What is the secret to your joy at work, I saw it, I don’t think it was made up for the sake of my visit?” Her answer confused me, “We will not permit more than 65 members in our cooperative.” I said, “OK, but what does that have to do with farmers staying after meetings lingering and clearly enjoying each other?”

 Mama Mpoki explains “We’ve written this membership limit into our constitution. We decided that 65 members is enough. The secret is that we trust each other. If there were more members then we might not be able to manage that trust in the same way we do now.”

 Make no mistake about it, the farmers want better education for their children, sturdier housing that won’t blow away in a storm, greater access to basic medical care, electricity, running water. Yes, they have hope for these things but somehow in their absence, in their poverty, they have dignity and joy. This daily living of a “more is not enough” life inspires me and gives me great hope in the future of humanity. Spending time with them over the years as their friend gives me hope for myself.