Industry Experts Get Hands-on Experience in Brazil as Volunteers
The cocoa market is not only global—it’s highly personal. The producers of cocoa are overwhelmingly smallholder farmers in tropical climes. Because the supply chain is extended and often tenuous, and has to contend with barriers of language and culture as well as distance, industry players go to extraordinary lengths to engage with sources to better understand the cocoa business and ensure its sustainability.
Mars Ambassadors Visit Cocoa Center in Brazil
The Mars Ambassador Program, a corporate volunteer program of Mars, Inc., through ACDI/VOCA, recently sent seven Mars ambassadors to the Mars Center for Cocoa Science (MCCS) in Itabuna, Brazil. ACDI/VOCA Managing Director for Specialty Crops T.J. Ryan led the group as a host.
The seven ambassadors work in the Mars Chocolate Division and hail from Holland, Belgium, Egypt, Puerto Rico, the U.S., Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
“The group got along very well together and with the MCCS staff, who were always hospitable and helpful,” Ryan says. “Many spoke English well, and those who didn’t were quick to smile and make everyone feel welcome.”
Understanding the Cocoa Value Chain
The weeklong program provided the ambassadors with an opportunity to thoroughly understand the cocoa value chain from planting material to the final product. The center staff set up exercises for the ambassadors to practice grafting, prepare seedlings for nurseries, plant trees and participate in the fermentation process.
The group also visited farms to see how the MCCS staff assists local farmers to improve crop husbandry and how the cocoa is grown using a sustainable shade system called cabruca.
They also saw first-hand how farmers battle cocoa diseases and came to understand the importance of continuing research to provide farmers with effective technology.
The Scientific Side of Cocoa
The visitors next went to the lab to see the scientific side of cocoa. The group was divided into pairs to work on specific projects such as extracting tissue to culture for somatic embryogenesis, conducting microbiology procedures to isolate the positive agents in the fermentation process, and identifying the cocoa’s DNA for better breeding.
“The lab visit gave insight into the complexity of the issues around cocoa science and demonstrated how the Mars team is working to find solutions to problems faced by smallholder cocoa farmers all over the world,” says Ryan. The ambassadors spent time as well at the Virginia Mars School, which serves 230 at-risk children from the surrounding area. The school, located on the MCCS grounds, provides the students with breakfast and lunch as otherwise many would only eat once per day. The campus also has a health and dental clinic.
The Social and Spiritual Side
In the afternoon the group traveled to a student’s house. The MCCS team had arranged for paint and cleaning materials, and the group of visitors along with some MCCS staffers gave the modest dwelling, which lacked electricity and running water, a total facelift inside and out.
The single mother-owner was happy with the work as well as the training MCCS provides her sons to improve their cocoa yields.
The last day was bittersweet as the ambassadors took the cocoa production process to its conclusion and made chocolate. The group roasted, ground and winnowed the cocoa before putting the nibs in a mill and then cooling the chocolate to put into molds. This was followed by a tasting, which was appreciated by the entire group.
Click to learn more about Mars's corporate volunteer program.
Pictured at left: T.J. Ryan, ACDI/VOCA Managing Director for Specialty Crops, is hand-pollinating a flower on a cocoa tree at the Mars center so that the flower will grow into a cocoa pod.