In Part I of our Sourcing Season blog series, Director of Cocoa Sourcing Jesse Last describes the search for his "Holy Grail Cacao Bean" - a deliciously fudgy and organic certified cacao bean grown by farmers who share our Direct Trade values. In Part II, Jesse offers an inside look at his trip to Ghana to follow a lead with the ABOCFA Farmer Association, and in the process, shares what it means to grow a new Direct Trade partnership.
Part II: A Partnership Worth the Wait
By Jesse Last
I touched down at 8 pm local time in Ghana's capital city Accra. Two warm welcomes awaited - temperature 60 degrees above the one back home, and a text message from a former Taza colleague, Tiffany. Previously a tour guide at our Somerville chocolate factory, Tiffany had moved to Ghana to work with an agricultural consulting company. When she heard about my trip, she reached out to welcome me to Accra. 5,000 miles from home, I had a friend to share the weekend exploring Accra!
On Saturday morning, Tiffany and I met in the city's oldest district, Jamestown. Powered by freshly made Nkate, the local peanut brittle, Tiffany and I explored the dense, colorful neighborhoods and coastal fishing villages. We ended our day at the Jamestown Cafe where a radio station hosted a panel of community leaders and artists discussing the film Black Panther and its connection to Africa (general consensus: two enthusiastic thumbs up!)
An artisan preparing Nkate, a delicious peanut brittle
Community leaders and artists discuss the film Black Panther at Jamestown Cafe
I had planned to spend Sunday at my hotel, but when Tiffany learned that Accra's Indian community was throwing a Holi celebration, rest lost out. Instead, I ended up with a face smeared with orange, pink and yellow cornmeal, a stomach filled with delicious Indian food, and a conveniently misplaced video of new Bollywood dance moves.
Tiffany and Jesse at Holi, the Indian festival of colors
I left Accra early Monday morning for the heavily agricultural Eastern Region. As the city turned to fields and forests, I reviewed the information that Stephen Ashia, ABOCFA's charismatic General Manager, had emailed me: the story of ABOCFA's founding in 2008, its successful growth from 350 to 695 farmers, and the Association's projects aimed at supporting children's education and building farmer financial literacy. 90 minutes later, I reached the town of Suhum where Stephen and ABOCFA's Executive Committee - the six-member governing board elected by their peers - greeted me at their office.
After a warm round of introductions, we packed into trucks to visit the hamlet of Osota and the local chief, Nene Chaty Kwaoyumo III. Chief Nene received us in a small, comfortable hut with photos of his ancestors framed on the walls. We exchanged greetings and I presented Discs and Amaze Bars as well as some whiskey - the custom is to bring an alcoholic beverage from one's home. After I explained the reason for my visit, we shared fermented palm wine, he gave his blessing to my stay, and we danced to traditional drumming (you guessed it - this video has also gone missing.) I was now welcome to spend the week in the community.
Over the next several days, Stephen and the Committee members brought me to cacao farms and introduced me to growers. I harvested cacao pods with a farmer named Mantuka, learning how to use a machete to cut the pods open. It was harder than it looked, and I think everyone was relieved when Mantuka kindly replaced my machete with an effective but blunt wooden club.
Association Manager Stephen shows Jesse how to use a machete to cut open a cacao pod
I learned that the custom is for neighbors to help one another during the harvest , with the host responsible for providing food for the day. Once the cacao pods are cut open and the fruit-covered beans removed, they are piled onto and covered in banana leaves to begin the fermentation process that will last 5-7 days. The last step in cacao processing involves drying the beans on raised wooden beds under the sun.
ABOCFA's Executive Committee Secretary Jacob and Jesse examine some drying cacao beans
Meaningful due diligence involves asking lots of questions during my sourcing visits, especially with a potential new partner. The challenge is to do so without boring or offending my hosts. When I wanted to understand how Samuel Odei campaigned for election as his hamlet's delegate to ABOCFA, I asked for his pitch. I thought it was good, and he graciously accepted my offer to be his running mate.
Samuel and Jesse practice their election victory celebration
I also spent a good deal of time inquiring about the child labor issues I'd read about. I learned that Stephen and his team have built close relationships with local schools where they coordinate workshops for students and parents alike to educate around age-appropriate activities (i.e. building cacao fermentation heaps after school) versus dangerous ones (i.e. using machetes to open cacao pods.) The team meets with school principals during the harvest to check on children's attendance, and it has a partnership with the International Cocoa Initiative non-profit that promotes child well-being in cocoa growing communities.
Beyond their attention to labor issues, I found the Association members to be thoughtful, generous, and deeply hospitable throughout my stay. From Jollof to Fufu, they made sure I ate plenty of delicious food, which culturally is an important way of welcoming a guest. I also appreciated the dynamic of the Executive Committee, where two women - Juliette and Janet - have served for years as the Treasurer and Vice Treasurer, and where the General Manager Stephen, despite having more formal education than the farmers for whom he works, shows genuine respect and humility in their presence.
In short, our time together showed me that ABOCFA would make an exceptional Direct Trade partner. As importantly as growing an organic, deliciously fudgy cacao bean, the Association shared our commitment to doing business in a way that is seriously good and fair for all. As ABOCFA's President Kingsley and I signed the Taza Chocolate Direct Trade Agreement, I felt grateful for the long, at times frustrating quest for the Holy Grail Cacao Bean. My sourcing search had deepened my knowledge of the sector, challenged my assumptions of where to find great cacao, and brought me halfway around the globe to meet our newest partner.
ABOCFA's President Kingsley and Jesse sign Taza Chocolate's Direct Trade Agreement