Cocoa can save the world

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.

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A farmer from the Greenhouse project in Beni separates raw cacao beans from an opened cacao pod to be washed, fermented, dried, and shipped.
We traveled down dirt roads near the town of Beni, in eastern Congo, close to the Ugandan border. Militias are active in the region, so our group was protected by an armed escort. Interactions at checkpoints along the road are unpredictable. In the town of Beni itself, a curfew is imposed each night at sunset.

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Ben Affleck, Michael Gerson, and Theo Chocolate’s Founder Joe Whinney sample cacao beans produced by participants in the Green House project in Beni before they are shipped to off for processing into chocolate.
Nearly all the homes in the area are within a few kilometers of the main road. Venturing further into the jungle is to risk attack. Women can be kidnapped and used as porters or sex slaves.

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.

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Workers sort through cacao beans in the a drying facility run by ECI partner Green House near Beni
But hope has come in an odd form: the world’s appetite for chocolate. Cocoa grows well in this part of the world. It can be cultivated by cooperatives, in safer areas, using environmentally sustainable methods. An even when the rebels come, they don’t steal the cocoa, which isn’t useful to them. In the Congo, cocoa isn’t just a cash crop. It is a survival crop –- a particularly resilient form of agriculture.

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.”