Shawn Askinosie is a criminal defense attorney turned chocolate maker who appears to be devoted to addressing some of the primary social ills that plague the chocolate industry through his company, Askinosie Chocolate. Askinosie got into the chocolate business as he himself was struggling with a desire to do something meaningful with his life (askinosie.com). And perhaps, it was this genuine desire to do meaningful work that served as the impetus that drove Askinosie’s unique ideas for alleviating some of the hardships he witnessed in origin communities from which he sources cocoa beans. According to information posted on Askinosie’s website, and media reports about the company, it is fair to say that Askinosie’s business model is positively impacting the following ailments within the chocolate industry: Farmers being unfairly compensated for their produce; Fair Trade certification’s shortcomings and; Representation of race, gender, class and ethnicity in chocolate advertising.
One of the most glaring inequities in the chocolate industry is the inadequacy of farmer compensation. This problem has plagued the chocolate industry for decades, and while the industry’s profits have been growing, farmers’ shares have not kept pace. Chocolate is a $100 billion per year business and the industry value is more than the GDP of 130 nations (Martin). Yet still, many of the world’s cocoa farmers are far from being justly compensated for their labor. Consider the fact that farmers in Ghana—one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa—make on average $0.50 to $0.80 per day. Or consider the fact that farmers earn roughly 3% of the profits from chocolate while the retail and supermarket margin is 43% (Martin, 2016).
Some may argue that organizations such as Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade UK ensure that farmers are paid fair prices for their produce—after all, there has been a proliferation of labels related to social responsibility on so many food products on supermarket shelves. But is Fair Trade really fair? The sad reality is—it is not. Fair Trade cannot be considered fair if the premium for Fair Trade remains at $200 per metric ton with no adjustments for inflation, and without consideration for the exorbitant fees that farmer cooperatives pay for the certification (Martin, 2016). On the one hand, it is quite sad that many consumers may not be sufficiently informed about the reality of Fair Trade.
On the other hand, it is very encouraging to know that chocolate makers such as Askinosie Chocolate is making a concerted effort to improve compensation for farmers. Shawn Askinosie describes his company’s corporate social responsibility with these words:
“I can confidently say the greatest opportunity and challenge has been weaving social responsibility into everything we do; it’s not just a buzzword, it’s who we are. Askinosie Chocolate was born committed to fairness, sustainability, minimal environmental impact and community enhancement. Those commitments will be in place as long as the company is.”
One of the ways in which Askinosie Chocolate is living up to its claims is with its Direct Trade business model, which the company describes as “better farmernomics,” (askinosie.com) described below.
“We pay the cocoa farmers significantly above the per-ton Fair Trade market price for their cocoa beans. On top of that, we also profit share with these farmers. At the end of the selling cycle, which also happens to be the time to inspect the new crop, we visit the farmers and pay them directly. Because we also do not use a broker, this is just another example of removing layers of middlemen.”
In addition to paying farmers above the market price for their cocoa, Askinosie has introduced a very unique profit-sharing concept that further incentivizes the farmers with whom they work. This program is referred to as a Stake in The Outcome or SITO, and it is this aspect of Askinosie’s direct trade model that is most impressive. In this model, the farmers who supply Askinosie Chocolate with cocoa beans are treated not as mere suppliers, but as business partners who share in the profits. Shawn Askinosie himself makes an annual “pilgrimage” to meet with the farmers and personally deliver their share of the profits, which can go up to 10% (askinosie.com).
According to the company’s website, their “financial statements are translated in the host’s native language to ensure clarity and transparency about how the bean purchase impacted net profits of the company.” In this way, farmers are able to “connect the quality of their beans to the outcome of each chocolate bar” and consequently improve their harvest techniques to ensure even greater profits going forward.
Another appealing characteristic of Askinosie Chocolate is its marketing approach evident through its packaging styles, which are in stark contrast to the chocolate industry’s norm—and this is a good thing. Many contemporary chocolate advertisements appear to have one thing in common—they portray a world far removed from the one in which chocolate’s primary ingredient originates. There would be no chocolate without cacao trees, cocoa farmers and cocoa beans in which there is lot of natural beauty to be found.
Yet still, many advertisements introduce chocolate products as if their point of origin begins with the chocolate maker or manufacturer; and many omit references to “those at the very start of the chain” (Roberts, 2010). As a result, consumers have very little information about the origins of the raw materials for chocolate. In fact, the majority of consumers the world over may not know about or consider the origins of the chocolate they consume because all traces are so efficiently removed by major manufacturers.
The Askinosie approach to marketing is absolutely refreshing! One of the most endearing characteristics of their packaging is that farmers’ portraits grace the packages of many Askinosie chocolates, along with the country of origin of the beans that were used to make the chocolate.
Furthermore unlike other companies that have adopted this approach, Askinosie did not try to “refashion” the farmers in a manner that is different from their everyday existence or to make them more appealing to western tastes. For example, Divine Chocolates launched a “beguiling set of advertisements . . . that feature[d] women cocoa farmers from Ghana . . . as cosmopolitan consumers of luxury goods and . . . as glamorous business owners,” which, while well-intended was somewhat misleading. As seen below, though dressed in native garb, these women were “refashioned” to fit the western model of glamor. It is also important to note that Divine Chocolate “supplied the women’s outfits and gave them a stipend to have their hair styled for the shoot” (Kristy, 2012).
Askinosie’s approach, in contrast to Divine Chocolate’s, does not go after the proverbial “glamour shot,” and the farmers’ photos send a different message to the consumer—they appear authentic and “earthy.” Furthermore, these portraits excite curiosity about the people and countries depicted and are gracefully captured. Nothing about the packaging alludes to sex appeal or luxury or fantasy as has become the norm in chocolate advertising. In fact, the pieces of string that are tied on the top of some chocolate packages are actually reused from the sacks in which the beans were shipped; this is another innovative Askinosie concept that will allow consumers “to discover the broader social and cultural implications” (Firth, 1997) associated with chocolate, and perhaps further explore the origins of chocolate.
Another Askinosie Chocolate program that appears to have positively impacted their “origin communities” is their A Product of Change program, which demonstrates that the company has indeed “gone beyond simply paying farmers above-Fair-Trade-market prices” (askinosie.com). Through this program, Askinosie Chocolate further engages with “origin communities” to empower them. Two communities, Kyela in Tanzania and Davao in the Philippines stand out as models that demonstrate the robustly positive effects of the program. To illustrate, Askinosie works with local PTAs for a school in Kyela and a school in Davao by “providing them access to market” to sell their goods themselves. The simplicity of this highly effective is just beautiful. Here is how it works in Askinosie’s words:
“Our Product of Change™ goods come from our cocoa bean origins in the Philippines and Tanzania. These products are created and/or harvested by the administration and PTA of the local schools. We ship the products from the origins, with our cocoa beans, sell them for the sole purpose of feeding hungry students from these communities, and return one hundred percent of the profits to the school administration and PTA to provide meals for each of the students. In other words, these programs operate completely donation free. 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.”
It is no wonder that Askinosie Chocolate was recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the “25 Best Small Companies in America” (askinosie.com), or to hear O Magazine describe Shawn Askinosie as a “willy Wonka with a philanthropic streak.” It is truly heartwarming to learn about a company that not only recognizes the atrocities and inequities that exist in the chocolate industry, but who goes out and effects positive change in the industry. In fact, in an inadvertent way, Askinosie Chocolate might even be impacting the scourge of child labor in the industry through its Chocolate University and Product of Change programs. I say this because both initiatives are providing educating and meals to students who might otherwise be forced to forced to work in order to help feed themselves or might not be able to otherwise access an education. Great work Askinosie! Hopefully, this company’s model will pave the way for other chocolate companies to follow.
- Martin, Carla (2016). Lecture: Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Cambridge, MA
- Robertson, Emma (2010). Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History.
- Leissle, Kristy (2012): Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24:2, 121-139
- Frith, Katherine T.. “Chapter 1: Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising”. Counterpoints54 (1997): 1–17. Web.
- Image: https://nancydrew4613.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/screen-shot-2014-05-08-at-2-04-31-am.png?w=985&h=594
- Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKFAovyNmWI