Building Each Other Up Through Chocolate: An Ethnographic Analysis of Askinosie Chocolate

Askinosie Chocolate is actively involved in chocolate production from bean-to-bar. More importantly, it is a model company that is driving change in how the industry treats farmers – the most exploited group in the chocolate industry. Through their business practices, the key players in Askinosie Chocolate’s supply chain practice kujengana – Swahili for “to build each other up.” Askinosie Chocolate founder and CEO, Shawn Askinosie, specializes in craft chocolate, meaning that they are involved in direct trade and the entire supply chain which helps them address social issues like child slavery and farmer exploitation. The company also has a reputation for its social and economic programs that benefit the farming communities and cooperatives. With few exceptions, the company counters racial and gender biases that seem to be pervasive in other big chocolate companies. In an industry that pays farmers very little, ignores child slavery, focuses on profit over quality, and fails to promote economic benefits, Askinosie stands out as a voice of change.

Dark Chocolate_Figure1

Active Supply Chain Management and Direct Trade. Askinosie Chocolate is an industry leader in promoting Direct Trade and working with the farmers. Shawn Askinosie has stated that “we do not source our beans from any location, unless I’ve been there.” Askinosie meets and conducts direct trade with the farmers, and pays above Fair Trade premiums for the beans which is often times more than double the standard commodity price. They attempt to cut out as many brokers as possible to lower costs. While Askinosie hires a customs brokering firm for exportation/importation of commodities, the company bears the responsibility of navigating through bureaucracy and is responsible for a vast amount of the administrative work moving the beans from the farm to factory.

 

Figure 1. As an example of their limited ingredients, their “Cortes” Honduras bar consists of: single origin 70% chocolate (67% cocoa liquor, 3% cocoa butter, pressed in their factory) with cocoa beans sourced directly from farmers in Cortes, Honduras, plus 30% organic can sugar. (Askinosie 2016)

Direct trade is critical for a craft chocolate company, giving them some leverage in how they receive the crop. Since their products contain few ingredients, the ingredients must be high quality. In Askinosie’s basic chocolate bars, the ingredients list is limited to cacao liquor, cacao butter, and organic sugar cane. The company does not add extra ingredients (i.e., vanilla) or emulsifiers (i.e., lecithin) into their products, like most companies. In comparison, Hershey’s bars sometimes contain as little as 11-20% cacao, sugar, powdered milk, lecithin, other emulsifiers, vanilla, and artificial flavors. Because their products are low-processed, quality and terroir are important to their business. The terroir plays into how they craft their chocolate using the subtle nuances in the flavors of the beans from different geographic regions. Beyond the flavors of beans themselves, Askinosie offers more than just basic chocolate bars. In some bars, they incorporate fruits, spices, and nuts to give a variety and depth of flavors. While they have not focused on highly elaborate artisanal designs or modern chocolate art, they have incorporated different designs in their products and bars to offer some artisanship.

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Askinosie takes an active approach and gets into a deeper level of granularity in regards to farming practices. In a profit-sharing relationship, Askinosie educates and guides farmers in how certain processes will increase quality. By increasing the quality, he highlights the correlation in sales; there is a vested interested in producing and only introducing high quality beans in the shipments to Askinosie Chocolate. For contextualization, the partnership allows him to make suggestions in how he wants beans fermented which has a drastic impact on the flavor of the beans. The practice of organic farming translates to what consumers are wanting. Additionally, he understands terroir and uses that in his product creativity calculus.

“We are so hyper-focused on quality it’s crazy. It’s one of the reason I travel so much, I’m constantly tasting beans and testing beans and looking at the harvest practices so that the quality is better and better.” – Shawn Askinosie (Askinosie 2016)

Taking humanitarian efforts further, he offers business practice advice to locals and to farmers. The firm is also involved in the “Stake in the Outcome” (SITO) program that is a profit-sharing and equity program. In addition to providing profit sharing with his employees, Mr. Askinosie does transparent profit sharing with the farmers. SITO is a novel business concept that really bring people together because they are involved in the trajectory of the business. They have a stake in the business, and are working together for something bigger than just a simple paycheck. The founder of SITO, Jack Stack, describes it as a “vehicle of change.” The adoption of SITO by Askinosie complements his Kujengana efforts.

When a company such as Askinosie forges an unshakable bond with farmers, it also benefits its consumers as it provides a platform for traceability. Traceability is another concept that allows consumers to learn more about where their food comes from and how the process works. This is important for sales because people are becoming increasingly food conscious – about what is in their food and its origins. When consumers have more information about where their food comes from, they seem to feel a connection with producers. Askinosie’s website has a “Learn” section that describes the origins and origins travelogue. In 2009, it had a search function on its site to conduct virtual visits of some of the cacao bean farms in Mexico, Ecuador, and the Philippines. Traceability has practical purposes, not just for altruistic reasons. When there is a food safety problem, traceability helps businesses target the product(s) affected, and assists them in identifying where in the supply chain something may have occurred. By doing so, this limits profits loss and hastens response efforts. Since 2002, even U.S. Congress members have called for studies in traceability to better understand how the US can respond to food safety crises such as salmonella outbreaks.

Giving Back. Going beyond a social responsibility to ensure farmers receive an equitable portion of profits, Askinosie takes it a step further by being involved in their origin communities. Several communities, including Kyela, Tanzania and Davao, Philippines, has implemented a program called “A Product of Change.” In this program, they aim to feed children that have traditionally dealt with malnourishment issues. To accomplish this, Askinosie Chocolate teams with PTAs of local schools to offer school lunches.

 

The Product of Change program moves beyond their main business of chocolate production to help communities and PTA administration to produce products other than the cacao beans. In Kyela, Tanzania, they produce premium rice. In Davao, Philippines, they produce cacao rounds. This simple business has profound effects. When people buy the Kyela rice or the Tableya cacao rounds, it provides lunch for children that may not have an opportunity to eat throughout the day, with malnutrition or hunger possibly hindering learning. The Product of Change program is sustainable because it is donation free.

 

Figure 2

Figure 2. The photograph shows food being distributed for school children who would otherwise typically eat just once per day. The nourishment helps them mitigate hunger, ostensibly aiding them in focusing on studies.

“A bag of rice or a block of cocoa might seem insignificant, but through these goods, children have access to reliable, healthy daily school lunch and, ultimately, a better education. The bonus is that they also get to see this business model of sustainability as a solution to social problems.”  (Askinosie Product of Change 2016)

To monitor and evaluate Product of Change’s impact, Askinosie monitors the student’s height, weight, and arm circumference. They also collect data on attendance and test scores to correlate the biological data and education statistics. Askinosie claims that since the program’s inception, “90% of Malagos students have gained weight and achievement test scores are up 25%.”

Figure 3
Figure 3. During a guest speaking event at the University of Missouri, Shawn Askinosie shows a presentation slide that highlights the impact of the Tableya sales.Other statistics state on their website state that since the program’s inception, they have helped provide a total of 240,000 meals.
Chocolate University. Askinosie Chocolate and Drury University teamed up to provide educational programs for children in Springfield, Missouri, and they named the non-profit, Chocolate University. The program exposes children to all aspects of the chocolate business, from understanding factory machinery, to business plans and concepts, to field trips to Africa and South America at the cacao plantations. Askinosie is the sole founder of Chocolate University. Another reason why education is so important is that it also helps address child slavery and gender equality issues as well.

The groups work can be seen in the below video.

Child Slavery. Despite multi-corporation agreements and international media attention, child slavery still exists today. Some of the big chocolate manufacturers have agreed to 2020 Commitment to eradicate child slavery by 2020; however, those promises have been in place for over a decade and some experts believe that child slavery has only become more prevalent. Recent estimates show there are at least 2.1M child slaves in West Africa alone; this figure is, shockingly, likely under-reported. Askinosie is engaged in being socially conscious and combating slavery by ensuring the farms they conduct business with do not perpetuate child slavery.

“More than one million children ­ some as young as five ­are estimated to work in Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, where they carry heavy loads, spray pesticides and fell trees using sharp tools, a report from Tulane University – New Orleans.” – Kieran Guilbert  (Guilbert 2016)

Craft chocolate makers have been able to make a difference by introducing quality checks to see if there is child slavery on the farmer’s plantations. However, these constitute only  a very small portion of the cacao worldwide compared to the major chocolate makers – Nestle, Mars, Hershey’s, Ferrero Rocher, and Cadbury’s. Nestle corporation netted $9.7B in 2014, compared to Askinosie’s $2M. Overall, it is easier for the craft and direct trade chocolate companies to ensure child slavery is not practiced on the origin farms where they derive their beans.

A late April 2016 New York Times article discusses how the International Cocoa Initiative is aiming to boost education to counter child slavery specifically in Cote d’Ivoire. The non-profit organization signed an agreement with the Ivorian government. The intent is to provide education as a long-term strategy. Education allows children to learn a separate trade besides cacao farming and harvesting or improve conditions to break the cycle of generational poverty. Dominique Ouattara, wife of the president and leading support of the ICI, echo those thoughts with her statement that, “Education is the alternative and the most effective long-term response in the fight against child labor.” (NYT 2016) Cote D’Ivoire’s civil war in 2011 exacerbated child slavery to the point where children involved in the cacao industry rose 51 percent to 1.3M in 2014 from 2008, according to a Tulane University report. (NYT 2016). Askinosie Chocolate has invested a lot of time and effort into educational programs, as well as other programs to improve lives in the communities with the children. Those long-term strategy initiatives work in tandem with the short-term (i.e., Direct Trade) requirements of no child slavery, to mitigate slavery from both angles.

Racism, Sexism, and Gender Equality. Askinosie Chocolate takes a very progressive and genuinely ethical approach to marketing. The wrapping on their chocolate bars show the farmers they conduct business with, not a generic African with exaggerated facial expressions. Their advertisements lack the sexism and refrain from exploiting sexuality and gender bias, as seen in other commercials where women lustfully indulge in chocolate. On the bar wrapping, Askinosie varies their designs. To honor the farmers, some include a photo of the farmer where they source their single-origin beans. Not all the farmers they conduct business with are male, there are female farmers as well. When they have profit-sharing meetings, they insist that both the farmer and the spouse present.
Another way they promote gender equality is through a funding a schooling initiative called the “Empowered Girls,” at Mwaya school in Tanzania. In Tanzania, approximately 53% girls graduate from form 1 to form 2 (~ 14 years of age). The educational stages for secondary level education would be Forms 1-4, and are the equivalent of a U.S. High School education stage. Forms 1 and 2, would then roughly equate to a freshman and sophomore years in the US. The Empowered Girls program also teaches the school girls self-esteem, sex education, and life skills to set them up for success. There are also awareness classes for boys, teaching and encouraging them respect women as well.

The education represents tremendous progress in terms of intangible efforts, but Askinosie also donates in the tangibles as well. Askinosie provides aid through providing text books, where there were none and only a chalk board. Additionally, the company has provided generators to power laptops, projectors, and screens to develop technology skills.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The graphic depicts an “Empowered Girls” session at Mwaya school, where Askinosie funded the program.
Conclusion. Askinosie is the embodiment of kujengana. Askinosie Chocolate builds up its own employees, its own Springfield community, the cacao origin communities, and the farmers they do business with. They are selective in who they sell to making sure that their vendors values are aligned with their business practices. Moving from “bean to bar” to “bean to bar to shelf” helps ensure others, even vendors, are building each other up as well. By employing this business methodology, even the consumer can be part of the movement by purchasing their chocolate, and the Product of Change products (Kyela rice and Tableya cacao rounds). Consumers also can be involved through traceability by learning and promoting the practices Askinosie employs. Askinosie Chocolate actively engages with consumers by offering tours and tastings, and through social media via its website, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook page, are all ways to learn more. They achieve the spirit of Kujengana through addressing education, hunger, lack of potable water, exploited workers, countering child slavery, environmental sustainability, and lastly, providing a chocolate product that is consumed and enjoyed globally.

 

References

Askinosie. (2016). https://twitter.com/askinosie

Askinosie Chocolate. (2016) “Our Story.” Retrieved from https://www.askinosie.com/

Askinosie, Shawn. (2014) Huffington Post. 24 June 2014. Lifting The Veil on Direct Trade (And Why It’s Integral to Our Business). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawn-askinosie/lifting-the-veil-on-direc_b_5523459.html

Dinardo, Kelly. (2011). Mr. Bean. (We Like This Guy!)(chocolate entrepreneur Shawn Askinosie’s Cocoa Honors). O, The Oprah Magazine, 12(2), 44. Retrieved from http://kellydinardo.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Askinosie.pdf

Martin, Carla. (2016) “Modern day Slavery.” AAAS 119x Lecture 15. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 22 March 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. (2016) “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” AAAS 119x Lecture 13. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 09 March 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. (2016) “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AAAS 119x Lecture 11.
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 02 March 2015. Lecture.

Nestle. (2016) Key Figures. Retrieved from http://www.nestleusa.com/about-us/key-figures

NPR. February 14, 2014. Bean-To-Bar Chocolate Makers Dare to Bare How It’s Done. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/02/13/171891081/bean-to-bar-chocolate-makers-dare-to-bare-how-its-done

Maxwell, Kate. (2009). Philippines: Hot Chocolate. (chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie is tapping Davao, Philippines’ cocoa supply) (Brief article). Conde Nast Traveler, 44(4), 28.

Petty, Clifton, Still, Kelley, & Auner, Janis Prewitt. (2010). Askinosie Chocolate: Single-origin or Fairtrade sourcing? (Business case study). Business Case Journal,17(2), Business Case Journal, Summer, 2010, Vol.17(2).http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ce8c6f5e-527c-42c6-ac83-981526711a21%40sessionmgr107&vid=1&hid=115

Reuters. New York Times. APRIL 28, 2016. Boost Education to Cut Child Labor on Ivory
Coast Cocoa Farms: Charity. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/04/28/world/africa/28reuters-ivorycoast-cocoa-education.html?ref=world&_r=0

Slave Free Chocolate. http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/contact/

Springfield Business Journal. June 25, 2014. Askinosie: Lifting The Veil on Direct Trade (And Why It’s Integral to Our Business). Retrieved from http://sbj.net/Content/Archives/Archives/Article/Askinosie-Lifting-The-Veil-on-Direct-Trade-And-Why-It-s-Integral-to-Our-Business-/48/108/97661

Stone, Brad. New York Times. 27 MARCH 2009. Forging a Hot Link to the Farmer Who Grows the Food. Retrieved from
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/technology/internet/28farmer.htm

Target. 25 September 2015. From Bean to Bar: Askinosie Chocolate Arrives at Target. https://corporate.target.com/article/2015/09/askinosie-chocolate-at-target-exclusive

Video: Forbes Honors Askinosie Chocolate. (Video file). (2016). Critical Mention.

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