General News Sustainability

My Journey from an African Classroom to Fine Chocolate

It’s hard to believe that next year marks my third anniversary as Executive Director of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA). My career path is different from most of the nearly 300 members of our organization. I don’t have a background in culinary arts or chocolate making, nor as a pastry chef. I do, however, have a deep respect for those who make quality chocolate products and the passion and artistry they bring to their businesses. I also am a self-proclaimed “chocoholic.”

My professional career began in 1984 when I joined the US Peace Corps, serving for two years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mompono is a small village situated south of the Congo river, deep in the rainforest. There, I taught tropical agriculture and biology to 150 high school students at a Catholic Mission. The challenges were many. Residents of Mompono lacked running water, electricity, healthcare services, stores, and any regular communication with the outside world. Despite the hardships, I was amazed at the resiliency of the community and the eagerness of students to learn and excel in school. This experience helped shape my interest and career path in international agriculture.

After receiving my masters’ degree in agricultural economics from Michigan State University in 1990, I returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for another two years, this time based at an agricultural research station in the Katanga Region. The USAID-funded project provided thousands of farmers with improved maize and peanut seeds, as well as training on farming and marketing. Covered loading docks and bridges were constructed to help store and transport products from rural areas to food deficit areas within the region.

For the eight years that followed, I worked on a number of agricultural development projects. In the Philippines, I joined teams to establish electronic marketing and price information systems among retail and wholesale markets, systems which still operate today. In Sri Lanka, I helped design improved wholesale and retail food distribution in Colombo, for the Ministry of Planning. In Jordan, I worked within the Ministry of Agriculture to improve efficiency and planning of agricultural investments.

My career took another turn in 1998 when I joined the US Grains Council. As their Director of Business Development, I identified new markets for US corn, barley, and sorghum. This involved extensive travel to Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia to support and promote feed grains for livestock development.

In 2000, I was asked by major branded chocolate and cocoa processors to lead their cocoa sustainability efforts. At the time, there was very limited knowledge of cocoa farming systems, deforestation threats, child labor or certification.

The World Cocoa Foundation was formed shortly afterwards. I served as WCF president for nearly 16 years, improving understanding and building alliances.

Chocolate sampling tables at an FCIA event

My journey then led me to FCIA, where I am proud to represent a truly extraordinary group of companies and staff who are dedicated to making quality chocolate products and sourcing cocoa in an ethical and responsible manner.

Despite the challenges of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I see some of the same resiliency that I first noticed in communities during my Peace Corps experience. FCIA and our members are adapting to a challenging business environment and will continue to promote and grow this wonderful segment of the chocolate industry. We could not have made this kind of progress without the many partners inside and outside our community.

Thank you.


Addressing Poverty and Child Labor in Cocoa: A Fine Chocolate Perspective

Despite the COVID pandemic, families and friends around the world are looking forward to the upcoming holiday season. This is the time of the year when we celebrate our blessings and dine together. Chocolate will invariably be on the menu, since it is one of the most popular desserts in the world.

As you prepare holiday menus and shop for food, take a moment to think about your chocolate purchase. Where was the chocolate made? Where were the ingredients sourced from, and by whom? 

Most cocoa is grown in West Africa. In recent years, production in this region has expanded and currently accounts for over 70 percent of global supply. The nearly 2 million farms in the region are managed by families on individual landholdings of less than 5 acres. In these rural areas, there is limited infrastructure, social services, or regulatory oversight.

Since farming is a family business, children routinely help to clear land, maintain orchards, and harvest cocoa. This can involve hazardous work such as pesticide applications, machete use, and carrying heavy loads. Many children living on farms do not have access to or attend school. The overarching problem in the region is a marketing system that clearly benefits large companies and governments, while famers remain impoverished. Poverty and child labor are invariably interlinked.

This month, NORC at the University of Chicago issued a report commissioned by the US Department of Labor to assess progress on child labor mitigation efforts on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. A second report, conducted by NORC and issued by the World Cocoa Foundation, examined company-specific programs to combat child labor in cocoa supply chains. The overall findings from NORC showed a persistent and ogoing problem of child labor on farms in West Africa. Rick Scoby at the World Cocoa Foundation provided a comprehensive and balanced review of both reports. As he said, “It is important to note this report, led by the U.S. Department of Labor, is not about the abhorrent practices of forced child labor or forced adult labor in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which other studies show is extremely rare in the cocoa sector.”

The NORC reports made several recommendations, such as scaling up company programs, increasing child labor monitoring and remediation, adopting living income differential (LID) wages for farmers, and investing significantly in education. To learn more about LID, please visit FCIA member’s Uncommon Cacao’s blog explaining how this works.

Is there the political will to make this happen? Are there any significant changes to the cocoa marketing system that can result in better equity for farmers?

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and our 300 members represent companies dedicated to promoting and supporting fine chocolate. Although our footprint is small in comparison to the full chocolate industry, our company members are innovative and offer consumers quality and healthy chocolate. This website, Make Mine Fine Marketplace, lists over 80 of our company members who sell chocolate directly to consumers online. Learn about how these companies source cocoa and compensate farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We also encourage you to take a virtual journey to cocoa producing countries to learn the history, farming and marketing practices, and unique flavor profiles in each country. 

To reduce cocoa farmer poverty, cocoa farmers need to make more for their crop. Are you willing to pay more for quality chocolate, knowing that you are not only supporting artisan chocolate companies but also helping cocoa farmers and their families? 

General News

Fine Chocolate Gift Ideas for a Safe Halloween 2020: Part 2

My October 6 blog post about Fine Chocolate Gift Ideas for Halloween received so much positive feedback that I wanted to share a “Part 2” listing of gift ideas for a safe Halloween 2020.  Fine chocolate is a truly great alternative to supermarket candy.  There is still time to make purchases online so you will be ready for October 31!  Ordering from Make Mine Fine helps to support artisan chocolate makers and farming communities who grow cocoa responsibly in the tropics. 

Here is my second list of gift ideas for Halloween: 

Bite Size Chocolates

As you look through Make Mine Fine company websites, notice that many offer bite size chocolate which are perfect for Halloween. Prices are comparable, in many cases, to the mass market candy and chocolate sold in convenience stores. This is the perfect trick-or-treat alternative!

Trick or Treat Bars

Chocolate bars are great gifts for any holiday.  Here is a list of five FCIA companies offering online chocolate bars.  Order soon! 

Delicious Bonbons and Truffles 

Maybe your preference is bonbons or truffles.  Make Mine Fine listings have many company products with unique flavors that are perfect to enjoy on Halloween.  

Chocolate Assortments and Specialty Retail

Are you seeking even more varieties and combinations?  Here are two companies offering a wide range of chocolate products from different chocolate makers and chocolatiers.

 Bake It Yourself!

Why not make chocolate from your own home? FCIA members make this easy for you to do with online classes and chocolate baking essentials. You can also purchase chocolate making equipment to help you make from home.  


Chocolate and Biodiversity — A Sustainable Pairing

Rainforests in Africa, Asia and Latin America are home to some of the most unique animal and plant life on earth. As many of us know, these fragile ecosystems are under severe threat from illegal logging, hunting and agriculture. Unless better environmental protection measures are followed, many flora and fauna species will be lost forever. 

The humid tropic regions are also the only places where cocoa grows.  

Cocoa farming can be either destructive or helpful to the environment, depending on how the crop is cultivated. When cocoa is grown in forest reserves as a monoculture, it can deplete soils and destroy habitats.

lizard from Madagascar
Photo credit: BFREE

On the other hand, when grown responsibly, cocoa can provide a home to native plants and animals normally dependent upon tropical forest.  Russell Greenberg from the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center writes that “this enhancement of biodiversity in the agricultural landscape occurs primarily on a local scale—providing homes and food for more generalized forest species that are intolerant of pastures or farm fields.”    

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) and our members are committed to making the best quality chocolate available in the market. Our companies equally care about protecting the environment where cocoa grows.  Here are two great examples:

Madagascar: FCIA member Beyond Good was featured in a recent article explaining how they are working with local researchers at the Bristol Zoological Society in Madagascar to protect habitat for Lemurs. Dr. Amanda Webber of the Bristol Zoological Society highlighted the conclusions from their research. “The findings are exciting as they suggest that these highly threatened animals can live in human-dominated areas and cacao could be an example of a crop that, when grown sustainably, has the potential to benefit wildlife and people.”

Photo credit: Beyond Good
Montezuma’s Oropendola
Photo credit: Wikimedia

Belize: FICA partner  BFREE Foundation in Belize is growing HCP designated criollo cocoa in a mixed agroforestry setting. BFREE Biological Field Station and Privately Protected Area is home to over 80 migratory and resident bird species including the Scarlet Macaw and Montezuma’s Oropendola. It is considered one of the most acclaimed birding sites in Belize.

The next time you purchase chocolate, take a moment to check where it was sourced. To order online fine chocolate from our member companies and learn more about the cocoa supply chain, please explore our Make Mine Fine website.

Chocolate Buying Guides Chocolate Gifts

Fine Chocolate Gift Ideas for a Safe Halloween 2020

This Halloween will be like no other. Given the concerns of COVID-19, many families are preparing to celebrate the October 31 holiday at home. Rather than purchasing candy from your local supermarket or drugstore, why not order quality chocolate online that tastes better and is better for you? By doing so, you are also helping to support artisan chocolate makers and farming communities who grow cocoa responsibly in the tropics. 

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) launched this marketplace website, Make Mine Fine, to help fine chocolate companies of all sizes with direct consumer sales. Fine chocolate is higher in cocoa content, lower in sugar, and is offered in a variety of sizes, shapes and price points. Here are some ideas to get you started as you prepare for Halloween.

Bite Size Chocolates

As you look through Make Mine Fine company websites, notice that many offer bite size chocolate which are perfect for Halloween. Prices are comparable, in many cases, to the mass market candy and chocolate sold in convenience stores. This is the perfect trick-or-treat alternative!

Delicious Combos and Infusions

Maybe your preference is more combos or infusions with other flavors. Make Mine Fine listings have many company products with unique flavors that are perfect to enjoy on Halloween.  

Gift Boxes and Baskets 

Many of our company members offer gift boxes with a variety of chocolates. This type of gift can be shared among family members and friends.

Bake It Yourself!

Why not learn how to bake chocolate at home?  Our company members sell chocolate making equipment and baking kits, as well as online webinars to teach you proper techniques. You can also purchase chocolate making equipment to make from home.


Climate Change and Chocolate

Climate change is impacting agricultural production around the world. Tropical crops such as cacao are particularly sensitive to even small changes in temperature and rainfall. In a recent article, Nick Hines at the Matador Network explains that the majority of cacao trees farms around the world are rainfed. As topical areas become dryer, there is a direct negative impact on cacao production, which in turn harms farmer livelihoods. Cocoa bean quality and flavor is also diminished.

What can be done to protect cocoa and the fragile environments where it grows? 

A man crosses a stream in a cacao grove in Belize
Photo credit: Maya Mountain Cacao, Belize

First of all, FCIA and our company members are committed to addressing these problems. We have partnered with experts to promote stronger environmental stewardship and agroforestry systems on cocoa farms and support farmers by offering better prices for quality cocoa. It is important to read the labels on chocolate you purchase and to visit company websites to learn more about how and where they source cocoa.

Secondly, cocoa researchers from institutes such as the Cocoa Research Center in Trinidad and CATIE in Costa Rica are breeding cocoa through natural means that are more drought tolerant or resistant, while maintaining flavor. This is a much longer term investment, but will help future farmers.