Cacao-Chocolate Supply Chain Problems and Askinosie Chocolate Solutions

Although chocolate has been a popular product for centuries, problems continue to exist along the cacao-chocolate supply chain. Issues such as farmer poverty, lack of education, oppression of women, and child slavery are tormenting. Bureaucratic and middleman costs, lack of quality control, and buyers who are detached from the farmers’ troubles also raise issues. Additionally, information needs to reach consumers to help them make informed choices about chocolate products. Artisan chocolate manufacturer, Shawn Askinosie, cares about communities and fairness to people at all levels of the supply chain and operates his business accordingly. Askinosie Chocolate opened in Springfield Missouri in 2007, as a small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer (Askinosie 2015). Askinosie buys single-origin beans directly from farmers in Ecuador, Honduras, Tanzania, and the Philippines (Askinosie 2015). The company has several products including dark chocolate bars, cocoa powder, roasted cocoa nibs, and chocolate spreads (Askinosie 2015). Through ethical business practices, Askinosie Chocolate has become part of the solution to problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain from farmer to consumer by engaging directly with farmers, helping in communities, creating flavorful products, paying farmers well while avoiding bureaucratic and middleman costs, and educating consumers in ways reflective of the Food Justice Movement so they make better choices.

Askinosie engages directly with farmers and helps in their communities. Unlike big chocolate companies that generally employ middlemen such as city brokers who buy from third-world brokers, who buy from farmers (Presilla 2009:111), Askinosie visits farmers directly, cares about local social issues, and initiates local improvements. For example, when choosing a cacao supplier in Tanzania, Askinosie wanted to help empower women in the area. Although women in Africa have proven to be ideal stewards of development in communities, they are often portrayed in National Geographic type images in reproductive roles and as at the mercy of nature (Leissle 2012:131-132). Because their business ability is underrepresented, Askinosie intentionally chose a farming group led by women and directly funded projects in their community to help raise them out of poverty (Askinosie 2015). For instance, the farm and the village used a shallow well for drinking water that was contaminated and unsafe (Admin 2010 Fresh), shown here:

Askinosie funded a project to build a new well, shown here:

Shawn Askinosie is shown drinking water from his newly-completed, deep, clean-water well that supports the needs of two thousand people in his farmer’s Tanzanian village (Admin 2010 Fresh). Also, Askinosie opened the Empowering Girls Club in Tanzania to help young girls realize their value and achieve their dreams by staying in school (Askinosie 2015). Additionally, he fought malnutrition in the farming villages in Tanzania and in the Philippines by sponsoring the production and sale of hot chocolate tablets by the schools’ PTA and allowing them to use all profits to provide meals to students (Askinosie 2015). The fact that Askinosie stays involved in farmers’ communities and takes initiative to fight oppression and poverty makes his company part of the solution to problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain.

Askinosie stays involved in the Missouri community where his manufacturing plant is located as well. Askinosie was inspired to reach out to the neighborhood because of its large underprivileged population where many children spend nights in homeless shelters (Askinosie 2015). His goal is to inspire children to be socially-conscious, aware of ethical business practice, and to let them see a world beyond their own (Askinosie 2015). Askinosie partnered with Drury University to open the Chocolate University which funds educational programs for local elementary, middle, and high school students (Askinosie 2015). Students gain hands-on experience working at the chocolate factory as shown here:

This image shows a high school student working on bean samples that will be selected for products in the Askinosie Chocolate factory, giving him a better understanding of global production processes (Admin 2010 Tanzania). Students become deeply involved in global projects as well. For example, one project allowed students to travel to Tanzania, meet the farm workers, bring back beans, make chocolate, and realize the difference in taste achieved through ethical business practices and direct connection to farmers (Williams & Eber 2012:157). The students supported the Tanzania village community after returning to the U.S. by raising funds that bought textbooks for Tanzanian children (Askinosie 2015); this teaches students that they can make a difference in the world. Askinosie also helps women at the local Victory House New Life Program shelter by employing them to complete the packaging of products (Askinosie 2015), such as shown here:

The women take the biodegradable string that comes in on bags of cacao beans from farmers and use it as ties on final chocolate products (Eileen 2011). The income the women receive helps them to gain more control in their lives while living at the shelter. Askinosie uses his chocolate manufacturing process to connect the U.S. neighborhood with distant farming neighborhoods to collaboratively solve problems while producing fine flavored chocolate.

Flavor is important in giving customers choice and in persuading customers that artisan chocolate is worth its cost. There is a huge difference in flavor between mass produced, bulk bean chocolate products made by big companies and products made by artisans from expertly harvested and processed, high-flavor, single-origin cacao (Williams & Eber 2012:172). As consumers learn this difference, they may increasingly appreciate artisan chocolate. For the most part, big chocolate companies want to mass produce consistent taste. To do this, large manufacturers blend bulk beans with criollo flavor beans (Williams & Eber 2012:175). Ghana beans are preferred by big companies because the Ghana government has created a regulated system that successfully maintains consistent high quality in bland-flavored, bulk beans (Leissle 2013:24). Ghana licenses middlemen to buy beans from farmers and sell them to the Cocoa Board which sells to big chocolate companies (Leissle 2013:24). This system pools beans and only allows buyers to do business with the Cocoa Board (Leissle 2013:29). Although some Ghana farmers have gained recognition by manufacturing their own chocolate products (Leissle 2012:131-132), this system prevents outside artisan chocolate manufacturers from buying directly from farmers. Because regulations require pooling of beans and selling to middlemen, farmers in Ghana cannot attract better prices from artisans by producing better flavored beans. Farmers miss the opportunity to be paid more by an artisan who wants to offer consumers chocolate made from a particular farmer’s cacao beans, soil type, growing environment, drying process, fermenting style, and all other handling methods that affect overall bean flavor (Presilla 2009:126). Identifying flavor with origin is referred to as terroir and it covers all conditions and processes that affect flavor of chocolate right up to the time that the final product is eaten (Nesto 2010:131). For example, to help produce quality beans Askinosie ensures that farmers grow their cacao in the shade of other tropical trees and plants (Askinosie 2015), which becomes part of his chocolate’s terroir. Askinosie visits his farmers and contracts with them to follow certain high quality standards (Askinosie 2015). Askinosie does not want to mass produce identical batches of product; instead, he creates uniquely flavored batches of chocolate that consumers are willing to buy at higher prices.

Askinosie sells his uniquely flavored chocolate at prices that allow him to pay farmers well and increases farmer profit by not burdening them with bureaucratic Fair Trade, organic labeling, or middleman costs. The Fair Trade Federation price system is meant to ensure that developing nation farmers receive fair pay (Presilla 2009:133), but there are problems with Fair Trade. For instance, because individual farmers all get paid the same, there is little incentive to improve bean quality and in some cases quality has declined (Presilla 2009:133). Also, the cost of belonging to Fair Trade is too expensive for many small farmers (Presilla 2009:133). Organic certification can also adversely affect the income of small farmers. To get organic certification farmers must stop using inorganic pesticides and fertilizers for three years, comply with complex standards, do huge amounts of paperwork, and pay more than ten thousand dollars per year in certification costs, which is generally too expensive and time consuming for small farmers (Williams & Eber 2012:199). Less than half of one percent of cocoa is certified as organic even though the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says demand for organic cocoa and chocolate is high (Williams & Eber 198-199), which indicates that many small farmers cannot afford organic certification. Additionally, organic labeling does not mean that the chocolate will taste good. Organic labeling has nothing to do with bean or processing quality; it only means that the EU and US government consider it organically grown (Williams & Eber 2012:201-202). Some small farm cooperatives gain certification but ferment their beans poorly and mix their beans within the group, producing poor quality products (Williams & Eber 2012:201). Askinosie respects Fair Trade and organic principles, but he also understands that money lost in bureaucracy does not reach the farmer (Askinosie 2015). Askinosie states that his cocoa is “unofficially organic,” grown with no chemicals or pesticides (Askinosie 2015). Askinosie calls his chocolate “direct trade” and says it is beyond Fair Trade because he cuts out middleman and bureaucratic costs; he buys directly from single-origin farmers, pays more than Fair Trade prices upfront, and shares net profits with farmers after each batch is sold (Askinosie 2015). Shawn Askinosie personally delivers checks for ten percent of the net profits to the farmers over and above the price paid upfront per batch (Presilla 2009:132). Askinosie is building a great reputation for his firm by helping communities and paying his farmers well so they are better able to educate their children and live better lives.

Customers are spreading the word that Askinosie has a reputation for ethical business practices, which eases the minds of consumers who do not want to be part of unfair practices that cause farming level poverty, child slavery, lack of education, and poor health. Consumers increasingly want to know that farmers and workers are treated fairly. Ninety percent of global cacao is produced by small farmers (William & Eber 2012:199), and seventy percent is produced in West Africa (Leissle 2013:26). Child slavery is a complex issue. On one hand, West African children work to support family as part of their culture (Ryan 2011:45). On the other hand, evidence exists that children live in poverty, sacrifice education, are sold into slavery, and work in hazardous conditions by carrying too much weight and being exposed to pesticides (Ryan 2011:48). Many pictures have been taken of young children working, such as this:

This image shows a child turning cacao beans as part of the drying process on a West African farm (Anon. 2014). Information on child slavery and pictures like this would reasonably cause chocolate consumers and cacao bean buyers to worry about children used unjustly as workers. It has been reported that some parents who cannot feed their children take desperately needed money from labor brokers hoping that the child sent off to work on a distant cacao farm will be fed and perhaps prosper (Off 2008:154). Concern that children are being held captive on farms continues to hurt the image of cacao production in Africa in the eyes of consumers (Leissle 2013:29). Clearly, paying farmers more, as Askinosie does, so they are better able to care for their children, afford education, and afford to hire adult helpers would go a long way toward ending worries about slavery. By visiting farmers and staying involved in their communities, Askinosie ensures that ethical farming and labor practices are followed. This protects the reputation of his farmers and his products, which allows customers to take pride in supporting farmers and Askinosie Chocolate through their purchases.

Educating consumers about flavor, the problems farmers face, and business ethics that can help solve these problems is essential to the survival of artisan chocolate manufacturers. Consumers are interested in knowing where their food comes from and that it is ethically produced. This mindset supports educational food based initiatives such as the Slow Food Movement and the Food Justice Movement that seek to connect consumers with ethical issues concerning food. For example, the Slow Food Movement teaches consumers to be environmentally conscious, enjoy the flavor of food, revitalize artisan food production, and to protect the cultural heritage of food (Leitch 2009:409-412). It helps artisans and small farmers when consumers understand that artisan food is worth more than mass produced fast food, because artisan food is generally higher in quality, more nutritious, environmentally friendly, and tastes better. The Food Justice Movement reflects a wide range of activity for ethical changes along the supply chain of foods (Levkoe 2006:587). Askinosie reflects this same spirit in his community projects and by paying his farmers well. The underlying premise of the Food Justice Movement is that food production should be sustainable and should benefit everyone involved from farmer to consumer (Levkoe 2006:587); Askinosie’s ethical business practices follow this same philosophy. Askinosie hopes more consumers will become aware and supportive of the changes he makes. He helps inform consumers by publicizing his service to farmers, neighborhoods, and consumers on his company’s website and during factory tours (Askinosie 2015).  Additionally, information and photographs of farmers are printed on chocolate wrappers as shown here:

This image shows the lead farmer in the Philippines, Peter V. Cruz, who is happy to provide single-origin cacao for Askinosie’s dark chocolate (Richard 2013). Images and information on labels gives farmers personal recognition, which encourages them to take pride in their work. It also connects consumers to farmers as individuals who work hard to produce fine cacao and who are helped with each purchase. Overall, information creates wiser consumers who are more likely to support artisan food manufacturers such as Askinosie Chocolate, and thus help solve problems along the supply chain all the way back to the farmer.

By educating consumers, increasing profits to farmers, and taking direct interest in farmers and communities while manufacturing unique and flavorful chocolate, Askinosie Chocolate has become part of the solution to problems along the cacao-chocolate supply chain. Truly excellent cacao represents less than two percent of all beans produced (Presilla 2009:129). To encourage more farmers to produce high quality beans, it is important that artisan chocolate manufactures grow in number, pay farmers more, and expand ethical business practices such as those initiated by Askinosie. There are now more than thirty artisan chocolate manufacturers in the U.S. (Williams & Eber 2012:155). They reach consumers who find origin, production policies, farming, and flavor quality to be very important (Presilla 2009:132). The growth of this market relies on consumer awareness, their willingness to pay for better flavor, and their appreciation for knowing they are supporting fairness and reducing suffering. Hopefully, as informed customers and companies like Askinosie Chocolate increase in number, they will continue finding ways to resolve problems along the cacao-chocolate supply chain and continue creating a better world for everyone involved.

References Cited

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