Senior ONE Adviser Michael Gerson is on the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this blog post, he writes about the benefits of cocoa crops on the country’s economy.
Conflict takes a toll on lives, but also on livelihoods. There is no employment in this part of the Congo other than agriculture. But decades of war helped destroy coffee production, once the main cash crop. Insecurity also makes it risky to forage in the jungle for bananas and other fruit.
I was traveling to the region with the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), a grant-making organization founded by actor and director Ben Affleck and supported by important foundations. Ben has made eastern Congo the focus of his activism and philanthropy, earning tremendous respect from his local partners. Together –- along with Ben’s delightful mother Chris, a teacher who lives in Massachusetts -– we visited a number of cocoa farms and production facilities.
ECI is helping in two ways. It supports a partner named Greenhouse, which teaches farmers the proper techniques for growing and processing cocoa. The process is relatively complex. Cacao trees are grown in the shade. Its fruit is opened to reveal milky white seeds, which are fermented in vats before being dried. Getting each stage of production right requires training.
But an agricultural commodity needs a market. So, ECI has helped connect Congolese cocoa farmers with a Seattle-based company called Theo Chocolate. Its Founder and CEO, Joe Whinney, accompanied us on the trip. Theo sells chocolate in more than 4,000 retailers, including Whole Foods.
Joe takes a socially conscious approach to business, making sure that his supply chain is ethical and transparent. But he also pushes hard for farmers to increase quality -– particularly in fermentation and drying -– which is essential to a premium chocolate company and the key to higher incomes for farmers. Joe believes that Congo cocoa is some of the best in the world. “The cocoa here is exquisite,” he told me. “It tastes like brownies smell in the oven.” Theo Chocolate has pledged to purchase all the quality cocoa produced by local cooperatives.
So far, Greenhouse has helped organize 19 cooperatives, which benefit families including about 11,000 people. The daily income for farmers producing quality cocoa will increase from about a dollar a day to $2 or $3. Doubling or tripling their income will allow farmers to purchase metal for the roofs of their sheds, or to provide dowries for their daughters. Most of the cocoa farmers we spoke with also mentioned that increased income would pay school fees for their children.
This is not only a success story in the making; it is model for development. “So much development,” Joe says, “is like pushing on a string. Market demand is what pulls the string.” Farmers who produce marketable products are taken permanently out of extreme poverty. They find independence, self-sufficiency and dignity -– the ultimate goals of development. “This is one of the best ways to invest in Africa’s future,” argues Ben Affleck. Joe makes the point with typical enthusiasm: “Cocoa can save the world.”