Episode 5: Total Eclipse of the Heart

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Episode Transcript

Intro:0:02Every day grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robideau — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.

Danielle:0:27The majority of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but Equal Exchange has historically always sourced its chocolate from Latin America. Dary, Kate and I engage in a conversation about the chocolate bar, the Total Eclipse, the story behind that partnership. And beginning to work in Togo. We unpack the complexity of child labor and the chocolate industry. We hope you enjoy it. So who, who are you, Dary, and what do you do for Equal Exchange? what exactly is like a day in the life?

Dary:0:58Hi. Yeah, my name is Dary Goodrich. I am Equal Exchange’s Chocolate Products Manager. And I’ve actually been at Equal Exchange probably over 15 years now. Quite a while, working in various roles. and, I manage our chocolate team and all of our chocolate products. So what does a day in the life look like? Well, I have to say every day is definitely different. The chocolate team is really responsible for managing our chocolate and cocoa products and that’s really kind of all the behind the scenes work to develop and procure products to build and manage relationships with our farmer partners and suppliers to share that knowledge that we have with our teams and our sales team to go out and get the hands in the product of our customers. So entails a whole lot of different work, from product research and development and purchasing and inventory management, and development of packaging and marketing materials to building relationships with our farmer partners and working to share their stories.

Dary:1:58So, yeah, every day is totally different. you know, a day, often there are meetings involved, and you know, connecting with manufacturing partners about our production orders, things that arise, as they’re producing or thinking about future productions. you know, looking at sales numbers, seeing how this compares to what we thought was gonna happen and how this might impact our needs for future inventory. And, you know, we have a team of four of us, so a lot of my work too is supporting my team as we kind of navigate, you know, various inventory or product issues that come up, or responding to customers. and, hopefully in there I can always kind of find time to carve out some project time and think about, kind of goals and, and future projects that we can work on for our team, to kind of always improve what we’re doing. I do actually work remotely. I’m located in Birmingham, Alabama. I was in Massachusetts at our main office for about 10 years, but since I do work remotely, sadly I don’t participate on our sensory panels, so I don’t get to do a lot of the quality work on a day to day. but of course, and I still love to eat chocolate.

Kate:3:19That is so sad. You’ve given us a real sense of the complexity of your job. And I think that Danielle and I were talking about how a lot of people have a pretty simplistic and rosy picture of what it might be like to work in chocolate. It just involves eating a lot of chocolate. Can you tell us about, if you can, about what some of that fun stuff is? We’re really curious about the process for deciding on a new chocolate product, for instance.

Dary:3:47Yeah. Well, you know, it’s a pretty sweet job. Ha! See what I did there. I actually began my time at Equal Exchange in our interfaith program back in 2001 and around 2005, 2006, at that time, you know, we were very much focused on coffee, which is still the largest part of what we do. But we realized, you know, we had other products and wanted to put more energy into chocolate and tea actually, and there was no kind of dedicated staff for either of those products. and I was like, I can’t pass up this opportunity when Equal Exchange decided to actually create positions for a chocolate products manager and tea products manager. And I was like, ah, I need to work at chocolate.

Kate:4:29So you didn’t have any chocolate experience formally at that time?

Dary:4:30No, other than selling chocolate through our interfaith program at the time. but, that was really it. so, it’s been just a great learning experience for me and just kind of building this whole program and growing it, every year and kind of new and different ways. and you know, it is super fun especially to develop products. and that’s a really kind of a fun part of, of what we do in a creative part of what we do. and you know, what Equal Exchange, I think we really try and be strategic about how many products we have. Right? There’s just a lot about, how many products you have and what that means for kind of fewer your capacity as a team to manage those. of course your inventory and your carrying costs are all those things. and, and we want to make sure we’re really offering the right products for our customers, that people are excited about.

Dary:5:25And so we know when we think about developing new products, we, we look at what’s happening out there in the market. we look at market data. our team is out there. I’m getting samples from, the market on the shelf and seeing what’s happening on the shelf. and also thinking about kind of larger food trends. and then kind of reflecting on what are we kind of, what are we missing or what might be good opportunities for us in terms of new products. and you know, out there in the food world, especially chocolate, there’s always a lot of trendy stuff that happens in the market. and for us, we want to launch a product that, at times kind of meet some of those trends, but also kind of at times meets some of those trends, but we want to do something that’s going to be more long lasting, right?

Dary:6:09That’s going to actually build a product that can build volume for our producer partners. and so a lot of of my kind of thinking behind product strategy is, is kind of combining trends with something classic so that it can actually, have more long term success. and so once we kind of looked out there and all the things that are going on and we kind of brainstorm different categories or products we might want to launch or a specific products that feel like really good possibilities from, for us. and then from there we work with our manufacturing partners to develop the recipes through a process that really kind of narrows down. A lot of times we just throw stuff up at the wall in terms of the categories we think are, are good places for us to be. and say, hey, we want to try a bunch of these, you know, three or four different things within this category., and then we, from there do a lot of sampling and would’ve like down and narrowing down to ones that we actually feel like are the right, right match and that our customers will be excited about. and then, yeah,

Kate:7:11So, if I’m understanding correctly, you would choose some ingredients perhaps and then ask manufacturing partners to play around with those? And then try them and see which ones work best?

Dary:7:19Correct. Exactly. Yup. and so, a lot of it is saying, hey, here are the ingredients we want. Here’s kind of the, the, a few different, , chocolate, percentages are recipes that we might want to try those ingredients. And, and then once we get those say, Whoa, that really didn’t work with the 55%. , so let’s try it a 65%. , and then really kind of tweaking around, the recipes to really get the best balance between, the, the ingredients and the chocolate. And I think one of the surprising things, you know, is how much inclusions, right? So the, the different ingredients we put in bars at side of just the chocolate, right? So the almonds and sea salt and lemon and ginger and things like that. How, how those really play with the chocolate. sometimes they work really well and pair where it really well and sometimes they don’t and they can really overwhelm the chocolate or make the chocolate. you know, some cases super sour when you added salty note, and like, that just doesn’t work. And so there’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of work to get to really that perfect balance that we’re excited to, launch.

Kate:8:29Yeah, that’s really interesting. Are you fumbling in the dark about that stuff or do you have more of a sense now that you’ve been doing it for a long time? What might work well, playing with the notes of the chocolate?

Dary:8:40I think we have a good starting point, but you always learn as you do it, like, Well that actually didn’t work as much. and so a lot of it is just being open, and saying, hey, we’re going to start with a few different starting points and see really where it, which direction is the right one to go in. But I do feel, you know, I feel like we’ve had some, some really good success with some product launches. I think we’re, we’re pretty good at that. We’ve also had some failures, right? Which is also how you learn and you have to do that. and, but I feel like we’re, we are good at really getting to kind of what’s up with the final product that we’re excited about it and we, we believe that customers are gonna be excited about.

Kate:9:22Well, speaking of new products, we have three new bars coming out, but we’re especially interested in talking to you about the Total Eclipse bar. We were hoping you could tell us what’s special about it and a little about that.

Dary:9:33Sure. Yeah. We are excited that we’re launching three new bars coming up here soon and the Total Eclipse is one of those, the 92% dark bar. and you know, we know more and more people, right, are looking for products with less sugar. And I think when I started in this position, you know, dark chocolate people was in the 60 to 70% range. And then years later, it was in 70 to 80% range. And you know, more recently the 80, 90% range, right? We launched an 88%. That’s done incredibly well and people are looking for that. and so we’re really excited to launch this 92%, which, has only three grams of sugar but is also, you know, for us, that’s a, that’s a super dark bar, right?

Speaker 3:10:19So we want something that, that can be challenging to get a product that actually has good flavor at that percentage, you’ve got to really have good beans, a good process to make sure that the product is not overly bitter or astringent or that they’re kind of off notes in that product. and you know, we’ve worked hard to come up with a bar that, is, you know, just a really nice chocolate bar. and just a lot of chocolate notes in it. And that sounds a little funny, talking about, chocolate because it’s chocolate, but different origins have very different flavor profiles. Right? And some are going to be more nutty. Some are going to have floral notes, some are going to be more sour. and, we are actually super excited with this bar to begin working in Africa to source some beans for this bar.

Dary:11:14This is, is not a single origin bar, but some of the beans will be coming from farmers in the country of Togo, which is located in west Africa. and up to this point, we’ve been working in Latin America. We love working with our partners in Latin America, but we are excited to begin partnering and working with, some organizations in Togo for these beans and bringing it back. The, you know, West Africa is very much known for it’s chocolatey notes in the beans. And so this bar kind of is illustrating a kind of the chocolateiness, of some of the beans that are in there.

Danielle:11:46The question that I had, it seems that, discourse around kind of labor abuses in the chocolate industry, child labor, focuses a lot on west Africa. traditionally Equal Exchange seems to have source chocolate from Latin America. can you talk about why that was chosen and how did some of those initial relationships come about?

Dary:12:17Yeah, a really good question. And you know, throughout its history, Equal Exchange has focused mainly on supporting organic farming, right and kind of more environmentally friendly farming practices. and that’s been a key part of kind of, who we are as an organization. and when we launched our chocolate program back in 2002, we started with an organic product. we actually, our first, chocolate product was actually a cocoa product. It was a cocoa mix. So we launched in 2002, which is just a great product. It’s just combining organic cocoa powder, organic sugar and actually organic milk powder. and when we started at the time, the only place where you could actually source organic cocoa or cacao was in Latin America. and so in a lot of the kind of the, the fair trade organic cacao sourcing and origins were in Latin America.

Dary:13:19And that’s, where we’ve focused a lot of our work, in Dominican Republic. And Peru and Panama, Ecuador. and for a long time really Latin America has been the leader in organic and traceable, kind of high quality and more specialty, cacao beans. And it’s really been interesting, I think to watch the cacao industry in Latin America follow the specialty coffee industry. and so a bunch of the countries in Latin America have done a really good job of supporting co ops and they’re kind of growing industries to focus on quality and provide, kind of unique flavors and higher quality caco for the chocolate industry.

Danielle:13:59Very cool. And, so, going back to the very beginning, how did some of those, where did you find those connections and how did you know, which farmers to work with and you know, were you involved in that process? Was it kind of driving around different countries to find farmers? I mean, how does, how does that work?

Dary:14:23Okay. it was actually before my time. I’m in the chocolate world. so that, that happened before me. but, really it was connection with people who were, who were doing some of this work already. And we actually ended up launching our first product in conjunction with a, a worker co op in Canada who was a hundred percent fair trade organization. They were focused on cocoa, their name is La Siembra, who’s now a close kind of partner, sister organization of ours. And and they were the ones doing it. And then, you know, we were excited about kind of the origins they were working with, which was, the Dominican Republic for the cocoa powder cooperative called CONACADO. and then also at the same time, organic and fair trade sugar coming out of Paraguay which is kind of the leading country in terms of organic sugar at the time. And working with several co ops.

Danielle:15:16Very cool. So now it seems like the direction maybe is beginning to shift a little bit with kind of your mention of a new partnership and Togo. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership and kind of where the thinking behind that came about?

Dary:15:37So, we were approached by an organization that’s been working in Togo, a fair trade organization named Gabana Togo, who’s been there for since 2015 I believe now. And, they’re working with two different cooperatives. One is named Scoops Procab, which was founded in 2013. and the second cooperative is named scoops IKPA. And they were founded in 2018 and they were originally actually, one co op, but they realized they were very far apart. And so it made more sense to split up the structures of the organizations to make it function better. and combined between the two cooperatives, there’s over 850 members and they’re located, and the regions around the cities of Kpalime and Badou, which are in the south western part of Togo, close, pretty close to the border of Ghana. And so really much, very much in the what’s called the cocoa belt of West Africa.

Dary:16:37in terms of a little bit more about them, their average farm sizes are about half a hectare to one and a half hectares. And so, just to give you a little comparison, it’s quite small. we work, traditionally with small scale farmers, for our cocoa, but in Latin America, a lot of our producers are averaging in the two to three hectares range. And they’re probably producing about 400 kilos or over 800 pounds of cocoa per hectare. And that’s also below kind of the, the world kind of average of cocoa production. I think a lot of older farms, and also older farmers, kind of the average age of farmers there is 50. and actually the life expectancy and Togo is probably about 60 years old. so yeah.

Dary:17:23But they are really investing in kind of new trees and investing in the farms. They actually I think in 2017 replanted about 80,000 new cocoa trees. and you know, I think what’s really exciting, is that they are doing organic and I think, this, you know, they’ve actually been producing cocoa in Togo, for, over a hundred years for a long time. and the industry kind of grew and then declined because there just wasn’t a lot of investment there. And so, I don’t have exact figures, but I’m guessing they’re producing, globally in Togo, for all production, maybe 5,000 to 10,000 metric tons. And to compare to two countries over in Ivory Coast, they’re producing roughly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa. So very, very small scale. And I think what’s exciting is this is allowed these organizations to do organic, which is not, kind of, traditional in West Africa.

Dary:18:41And it’s traceable cocoa. and so, you know, we’re excited to work with organizations that are really trying to do things differently and set a different standard or an industry in this country that’s, that’s really kind of being reborn, and I think can be reborn in a really positive way. so for us, there’s still a lot to learn, right? We, we, it’s totally different context, in West Africa. So, that’s part of, part of why we would want to do this and make this step and get kind of in there and see what we can learn.

Danielle:19:16And so just to ask a little bit more about, why, why this decision, do you think that it’s more of a business decision, more of an ethical decision and why is it meaningful for Equal Exchange to, you know, to move forward with this partnership to you?

Dary:19:37Yeah, really good question. And I think, with Equal Exchange, these kinds of decisions are always often both of those things. and you know, why did we want to get into West Africa? Like I said before, it’s really the, the, the heart of the kind of major part of the industry. All right, 60 to 70% of the world’s cocoa is coming from there. so it’s, it plays a major role in the entire chocolate in industry. and beyond this, as a lot of people listening will probably know. Right. And as I previously mentioned, there has been a major focus on the problem of child labor in West Africa. and, and I want to talk about that, just kind of clarify that a little bit. what do you mean by child labor? Because I think there’s a lot of times kind of misconceptions out there about kind of how do we define that or what does that mean?

Dary:20:27And at the first level, right, it’s kids working on farms with their families, right? And so that’s, that’s something that’s normal, right. And is happens in the U S on farms. Right? and they’re helping their families out on the weekends. Outside of school. I’m doing, you know, just, safe tasks around the farm. Like, you know, my kids do chores around my house. and then there’s what’s known as the worst forms of child labor. and the International Labor Organization kind of, states this as a quote work, which by its nature or the circumstances in which is carried out, is it likely to harm the health, safety or moral slept children, unquote. Right? So, that’s really, what people are talking about. And that’s when kids are not able to go to school. When kids are working long hours, when they’re working in unsafe and I hope the conditions, and then there’s another level, which is children that are actually trafficked and ended up in slave conditions.

Dary:21:32And that’s, that’s a far smaller number, but it’s still exists. And, and I think something that’s kind of unfair to West Africa is to, it’s often, you know, explained as this is it it or it seems or is perceived as is only happening in West Africa. And this is not just happening in West Africa. It’s happening around the world that’s happening, not just in cocoa but, all sorts of crops. So sadly today, this is just a major widespread problem that still continues around the world. and even in the US and so, but that said, you know, in West Africa, because it is such a large part of the industry and it provides the most beans for the industry. There has been that focus and you know, just to give some numbers in some context, the United States government hired a Tulane University to really look at this and provide research and reporting on this issue. And they published a few different reports. Their final report was in 2015 and they compare data from the 2008-2009 harvest to the 2013-2014 harvest. And they found an overall increase in, in, children working in hazardous conditions, in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. and they wrote that over 2 million children are found in hazardous, work, during that 2013, 2014 and harvest season. So it’s, it’s a major at a, at a huge scale.

Kate:22:59Right. And my understanding is that in the chocolate industry, there’s been conversations and more light shed on this and people, big players have said that they’re going to be making improvements, but so it’s disheartening to hear that in fact, there are MORE children working in this industry than there were.

Dary:23:13Yeah. I mean there’s, there’s been a lot of conversations for a long time. and there’s, there has been some action, but I think what everyone, still believes is that it’s far, far, far from enough. and a lot of that too is it’s it’s action that, is not the right action. and, you know, from Equal Exchange’s perspective, you know, a lot of this needs to be paying farmers more. and part of the fair trade system is that there is a floor price and they were paying higher than the price. but, in 2017, the market dropped, basically by over 30%. Right. And so for farmers to lose that, and have no control over that, has a huge impact and that forces them to take drastic measures, and which can be how they, you know, aren’t, aren’t even able to pay their labor or maybe it actually stopped growing cocoa altogether. Right. it’s, it’s hard choice.

Kate:24:08Right, they’re forced out of the industry, or they hire laborers — or get laborers that aren’t being paid fairly.

Dary:24:11Correct. Yeah.

Danielle:24:23And Dary, do you see any specific difficulties around this partnership in particular? And anything that you can foresee that could be difficult for Equal Exchange in this partnership?

Dary:24:39Yeah. So, I think we’re learning that, right? I think, I think time will tell, but you’ll let us know. well, you know, of course we kind of think about these things. and you know, a few things that come to mind is, is you know, many countries in Latin America, Co ops are, well defined, they’ve been around for a long time. and they’re sometimes decently supported by the government, sometimes they’re not, it depends on the country and the context. and I think in Africa this is less true, right? So, kind of our understanding is that these organizations are learning to be co ops and, and are starting at a very different place. and so I think that’ll be something that’s for us to learn and engage with them. And I’m understand what does that really mean and what’s that look like as we progress with this relationship.

Dary:25:32You know, I know they’ve also, right now they’re doing fermentation on the farms. rather than kind of central post-harvest fermentation, and, and what that means is right, cocoa beans go through a process once they’re harvested. they actually are fermented, which goes to your process, really kind of develop the flavor of the bean and doing it on the farm. How you have less control over that, right? So there’s, the quality can be really good, but it also can be inconsistent, right? So I think that’s something that we want and I know they’re thinking about that there as well. obviously the size of the farms are very small, so, that plays a, a role in how much impact you can have, if there’s only so much land to produce on. so kind of trying to understand that piece and the other pieces that were on our side, you know, we’re, we’re only launching right now this product with these beans and it’s, it’s blended.

Dary:26:27So, yeah, it, it’s a new product, right? And so we hope it does really well. but it’s a new product and you don’t know that. And so, you know, we hope we can buy a whole bunch of beans from this operative. but, with only being in one product, it’s time will tell. Right? And so we hope we can, provides, a more kind of consistent purchasing partner for them. but time will tell. And of course we can also think about other strategies.

Kate:26:56It sounds like our listeners need to make sure to buy some chocolate. That’s the Total Eclipse bar, for folks listening at home. It’s delicious, I hear. Actually, I’ve tried it; it is delicious.

Dary:27:07It is delicious. Yeah. And we think it will do well, but, but again, it’s a new product and they’re always unknown. and there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of challenges between us and even just getting a product to the shelf and to customers. Right? It’s just not always a straight path. So those are a few things I think that we’re, we’re thinking about. But you know, I am really excited that we’re taking this step and as I said, it’s, it’s new for us and it gives us the ability to move into West Africa and learn. And really see what the reality is and how much it lines up with kind of what we hear out there in the news and and what it is on the ground and how we can potentially play a role in having, yeah. Real positive, impact along with these organizations that are doing good work in Togo.

Kate:28:00Yeah, that’s a powerful thing.

Dary:28:02Yeah, for sure.

Kate:28:02So go back to the fluffy questions. Can you tell us how you came up with the name Total Eclipse? I’m really struck by that. I’m a fiction writer and I like words.

Dary:28:14Nice. Yeah. I mean a lot of chocolate bars are pretty straightforward names. Like one of the other bars we’re launching, it’s just Almond and Sea Salt, right. So, pretty straightforward. But, with this one, we wanted to get a little bit more creative and we actually, so the process, like I was talking about before, kind of going through iterations and thinking about what’s good out in the market and we actually in this case had a team, a committee that was, a few of my colleagues from our chocolate team as well as a few folks from our sales team, working together through this whole process to come up. But these products and, that committee, we a had a few brainstorm sessions and I know some folks on the committee also got some ideas from people outside of our committee. and we had a lot of, you know, we, we’re thinking super dark, right? What are fun ways to represent that. And of course, a lot of us came back with kind of nighttime moon themes. and I believe actually a total eclipse. The name came from one of our designers, Greta Merrick, who was working on the, the labels when we were thinking about, names. And, and we all kind of took that big list and did a few rounds of voting and narrowed it down and got down to a couple of names, and let people kind of sit with it and think about, kind of does this fit with our current line? Will people understand what the product actually is, are reasons we shouldn’t use the name right. And, kind of see if the final ones made sense and worked in that. We all were definitely in love with the Total Eclipse concept and a, it was also super fun again because our designer was working on this and she got whimsical and put in an eclipse moon above the cacao tree on the top. So that’s pretty fun.

Kate:30:02An Easter egg.

Dary:30:03And then the bar is just a, you know, it’s a kind of, it’s a black label and we just are super excited about the whole concept and bringing that out in the market. We think people enjoy that.

Danielle:30:22Great. Thank you so much. Dary, for meeting with us. maybe just one last question. What’s, what’s up for, the Equal Exchange chocolate team coming in 2019.

Dary:30:35Okay, sure, of course working on a whole bunch of things. A lot of it just making sure we have products for people to purchase. and of course a lot of our energy will be focused on supporting the launch of our new bars. and a lot of our work is behind the scenes, so we’ll kind of be doing projects to kind of continue to improve how we do things logistically and, and move our product ground and get it to folks out there, the market. continuing to build our relationship with our precert partners, and do trips to origin, as well as connect our customers and farmers through trips. And so last year we did a delegation to Peru and we’re actually looking at doing several delegations this year for staff and hopefully some, some of our accounts, which is always kind of a main goal of ours to just tell those stories but also connecting. Cool. and so people can see live and, and time what it really means, both to be a farmer, but also so farmers can hear what’s happening in the US right around the chocolate, aisle. So yeah, that should be pretty exciting.

Danielle:31:43Awesome. Thanks so much. Dary, and yeah, maybe there’s a followup podcasts. How does this partnership go? I’m definitely interested in the follow up. Thank you for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Outro:31:56Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. How podcast by Equal Exchange inc or work around cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Cape Chests and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

Unconventional Bananas in Peru: an Interview with Julio Oscar Gallegos Herrera-Rambla

The U.S. market tends to treat bananas as commodities, as in unspecialized products that are virtually interchangeable, regardless of origin. Following a century of well-documented exploitative practices by U.S. banana companies, the fruit remains a top seller at U.S. grocery stores. Thanks to the conventional system, bananas are everywhere, cheap as can be, and divorced entirely from the circumstances of their production in the minds of consumers. One banana is like any other.

Equal Exchange aims to dismantle that paradigm, working with a movement of independent businesses – farmer co-ops, distributors, stores – to create a banana supply chain that is unconventional at every step. In a sensitive industry, we look to the farmer organizations revolutionizing the banana trade to envision a future in which the industry represents and benefits all stakeholders.

The Valle del Chira has a special micro-climate that is hot and dry, allowing organic bananas to grow with less threat of plant diseases that spread easily in wetter climates.

EE has partnered with CEPIBO, an association of small organic banana producers in Piura, Peru, for 8 years. This week, I had the chance to chat with CEPIBO’s  Administrative Manager, Julio Oscar Gallegos Herrera-Rambla, about the unique small farmer sector in which he works, and the future he sees for smallholder banana production.

CEPIBO’s members grow bananas in the Valle del Chira (Chira Valley) in Northern Peru. The valley is part of a micro-climate that is hot and dry and consequently ideal for organic banana farming, since plant diseases are less likely to spread or prosper than they are in the humid tropics.

Unlike other Latin American countries, Peru did not enter the banana export industry until relatively recently. According to Julio, small farmers in Northern Peru began growing organic bananas for export around 20 years ago, having observed the successful industry just across the border in Ecuador. At the outset, these farmers were selling fruit by themselves, typically to the largest exporters. This presented a disadvantage: since small farms in the region are on on average just 3 hectares (7.5 acres), a single farmer didn’t have many levers to pull in negotiations with multinational shippers, who could thus dictate prices and volumes at their convenience.

Over time, farmers began to organize into associations and cooperatives. In 2003, CEPIBO was founded by small producers who recognized that they could build collective power if they formed a block and aggregated supply. Says Julio, “CEPIBO has always been about small producers working for small producers.”

Photo courtesy of Julio Oscar Gallegos Herrera (pictured), Administrative Manager at CEPIBO  

Julio, himself, is not a farmer; he studied Business Administration at the University of Piura, and began his career in the private sector. He gained experience in logistics and exportations, working with large conventional export companies. In 2013, after years of working for private companies, he decided to break off and start his own consultancy for export businesses. CEPIBO was his first client, at a time when its business and organic banana production were thriving.

But agriculture, and international trade, can be tremendously volatile. Over the years, CEPIBO has had its share of difficulties in a brutal and unforgiving banana market, where small farmers are competing with lower-priced plantation-grown bananas from other countries and facing the unique challenge of implementing standardized agricultural practices across hundreds of smallholder farms. In 2017, Julio was invited to work with CEPIBO again at a critical moment for the association: “CEPIBO was facing a strong economic crisis, and that is why they requested my support to analyze the situation and improve management practices.” A year later, Julio signed on as a full-time employee of CEPIBO.

Julio’s prior experience with private sector greatly informs his perspective as a committed staff member at CEPIBO. “When you start to look at the gap between the private sector and the associative (cooperative) sector, you see two realities that are very distinct. The less privileged sector has less access to resources and education, and that is due to poverty.”

For Julio, an ideal banana industry – a goal for all of us in the supply chain to work towards – would be one “that doesn’t work against the planet, an ecologically sound industry that allows producers and community members the tools and the knowledge necessary to become business people who own their own land; that makes it possible for their children to access higher education of good quality.”

Equal Exchange Sourcing Manager Ravdeep with CEPIBO staff in 2017. Left to right:  Walter Garrido, Certifications Manager;  Leticia Gutierrez, Logistics Coordinator; Ravdeep Jaidka;  Jorge Socola, Former President; Julio, Administrative Manager

It may sound like a grandiose vision, but through business development and marketing of organic, fair trade fruit, CEPIBO is moving in a positive direction. The association has around 365 farmer-members and employs 14 administrative staff members, as well as around 100 staff who work in the field, harvesting and packing bananas. Julio plans to continue working in this fast-paced and challenging environment: “I am here, honestly, because this is a commitment I have made. It’s not just about a good salary. This is about overcoming, that is the inspiration – you realize that there are some things that are worth saving.”

CEPIBO is looking toward a long future of building opportunities for its small-farmer members, and Equal Exchange and its partners across the supply chain are part of that. Through collective work, “we are yielding results, and that motivates you to keep going forward. CEPIBO is more stable now, and we are thinking about making plans that we would never have imagined possible before.”

Want to learn more about the unconventional EE banana supply chain? Check out our latest video here.

Woman In Coffee Highlight: Meet Haby

In the lush and isolated highlands of southern Peru, a region known as Incahuasi, meaning “House of the Incas,” one young woman, Habilia Vigoria Oyola, stands out. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are highlighting an outstanding woman who is working to support the dreams of a long-term coffee-producing cooperative and ally, San Fernando and break the mold by increasing gender equity in her community.

What sets Habilia (Haby) apart isn’t the fact that she is a woman. It is her desire to build up a generation of future leaders. She is passionate about involving young people, creating more resilient and sustainable ways to farm coffee, and making gender equity the norm.

A sharp mountain peak wreathed in clouds
The view from a hike up Choquesafra

Meet Haby

Haby is the middle child of six, and the oldest of four girls. She is brave and adventurous– in fact, I first spent time with her when she spontaneously decided to go on a three-day backpacking trip to the looming peak behind Incahuasi’s native valley, a mountain by the name of Choquesafra (16,000 ft). She is also dedicated and studious. In addition to finishing up her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering, she is also learning how to cup coffee, which is an important tool for empowerment for any cooperative. Cupping is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. (Read more about it here.)

In February 2019, I spent three days with Haby in a workshop focused on equipping trainers to disseminate the importance of capitalization. Workshop participants learned how to genuinely incentivize small-scale farmers to invest in their cooperatives- the main focus of this work being that no famer is too small or too poor to invest. (To learn more about that, read this or this). Haby is committed to San Fernando. She says “cooperative work is really nice. The more members we acquire means more support. We share knowledge and we … feel like a family with all the members of the cooperative.”

Five hikers relax on a stony outcropping, taking a break.
Hikers taking a break! From left to right: Cayo Candida, Habilia Vigoria Oyola, Todd Caspersen, Alfredo Chucctaya, Kim Coburn

Haby’s parents are indigenous smallholder producers of coffee, supplying their crop to the San Fernando Cooperative. The recognition that all coffee farmers face controllable and uncontrollable challenges propelled Haby to pursue agricultural engineering. Over the course of her studies, Haby  has witnessed all the difficulties in growing coffee and is proud to support their work by sharing all her learnings and ideas with her family and the cooperative. For example, her senior thesis work focuses on coffee pests and plagues, and she is hoping to put together model demonstration plots to share what a healthy plot or “chakra” should look like.

In Her Own Words

When I asked Haby how we could engage more female members of the community, her response was thorough: “By making women know their rights — that we are all equal, that we receive the same benefits from the cooperative.” According to Haby, the next step is to “create and strengthen institutions specialized in the field of gender equality, by promoting the participation of women in these areas.” In addition, she spoke of the importance of training people in leadership roles so that there’s a “mechanism for follow-up and monitoring of equality and gender equity in the cooperative.” None of this can happen, she says, without dedicating “resources for the proper functioning of this important work.” In her studies, she often found herself as the only woman in her cohort. Because of her experiences, she understands firsthand how difficult it can be to work in a role that people are used to seeing men fulfilling. She is dedicated to creating a new normal.

A man and a woman sip from tiny cups of organic coffee set along a table
Haby cupping coffee at San Fernando.


The Future

Haby has ambitious plans for the future. Her personal goal is to finish her agricultural engineering degree and focus on that career. She’d also like to grow speciality coffee on at plot of at least two hectares and to cultivate cacao varieties to experiment.  As for the co-op, she hopes to see advances like an on-site processing plant and fully implemented cupping laboratory, as well as the production of biological controllers.

I know that Haby is just beginning to make her mark in the beautiful Incahuasi valley. Every  time we part, I’m reminded of how genuine and powerful her enthusiasm is. Perhaps most importantly, she’s sending her community and co-op an important message: when you give youth and women the tools to succeed, they will start by giving back to their own community.

A valley ringed by mountains
A view of Incahuasi’s valley

Episode 4: Farmers Sharing Knowledge for Better Chocolate — and Better Outcomes

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Episode Transcript

Intro: 0:02 Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess. And we’re your hosts.

Kate: 0:28 Danielle and I are here today with Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives as they improve their quality, productivity and financial stability. Cristina deals with an astonishing variety of people, small scale farmers in a number of countries, plus agronomists, tasting professionals, folks who work for the u s government and more. And all of these people are working toward the same goals. Let’s hear more about how that works. Thanks for joining us, Cristina. Thanks for having me. Your job is clearly very complicated. How would you explain to a stranger what it is that you do for a living?

Cristina: 1:03 Well, I’ll start with my job title. I am the grant projects manager at equal exchange. So, what is the grant projects manager do at equal exchange? There’s really kind of two scenarios. One of them is your average come to the office, write emails, the usual have meetings. The other scenario is I’m in the field visiting with farmer cooperatives and, supporting educational workshops or giving workshops. All of this is related to managing this grant project that we have.

Kate: 1:39 Can you tell us about the scope of the grant?

Cristina: 1:42 Yes. So it’s actually, we, we have in the past had more than one grant, but the one that I’m referring to mainly is the USAID. So that’s the U S agency for International Development Cooperative Development Program. So it’s a multi year project where we applied for funding to do special projects with our farmer cooperative partners in three countries originally, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. And we work on lots of different activities related to strengthening our cooperative partners.

Kate: 2:21 Is there anyone else involved in this besides equal exchange?

Cristina: 2:29 So USA ID has many different funds. One of them being the cooperative development program. And within the cooperative development program we were one of nine, grantees. So some of the other grantees include the land o’ Lakes International Development Program. Another group called National Cooperative Business Association, specifically their arm that does is international projects called Clusa.

Kate: 2:57 Cool. Yeah, that sounds like so much. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What is it like, I guess we can all imagine sitting in an office and answering emails. Some of us might do that ourselves, but what’s it really like? Can you describe what it, what it’s like when you’re visiting producers in Ecuador or Peru?

Cristina: 3:17 Sure.  well first Ecuador and Peru are, are fairly different, but sure. Yeah. My mainly in a project activity would involve, you know, flying down there and that always takes longer than, and then you’d like to thank, but oh, depending on where you’re going, I’ll take one or two days to get to your destination. At this point, you know, we’ve had such great relationships with our cooperatives that we can kind of call them up and say, I’m arriving at the airport at this time. Will you come pick me up? And they’re great about that. Usually pick us up, we’d go visit the offices of the cooperative and say hello. And, and one thing you kind of forget when you work in a US based office is physical contact is almost uh, discouraged. But if you go to Latin America and you are saying hello to someone, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time and you don’t do the kiss on the cheek, it’s actually offensive. So there’s a lot of kisses and hellos. And how are you and this time of year happy new year, happy new year old lasts at least to like February.

Cristina: 4:30 Usually there’s some kind of meetings scheduled. If, they have a processing plant. Say if I’m going to visit NORANDINO in northern Peru, they have a coffee processing plant. We usually kind of tour the plant a little bit or do a little walk around as things change. We’ve worked on project activities to implement, you know, kind of new kinds of laboratory equipment in, in a co op like Nora and you know, and so want to see how it’s working, chat with staff about how it’s going, say hello to folks and then sit down and have meetings specifically around what was your work plan for the project this year, how’s it going, how can we support you? Is there anything we need to troubleshoot? Then you usually go for a nice leisurely lunch, uh, in a place like, uh, where NORANDINO is Savi Che is the most popular lunch and you know, that’s also, it’s a working lunch. You kind of continue to update each other on what’s going on. We try to provide as much information as we can about what’s happening on the u s market side or with equal exchange changes that are happening here.

Cristina: 5:40 And then, I’ll oftentimes you will have a field visit either the same day or the following day where you go visit with individual farmers. And again, it’s part of, it’s just going there and sitting and having a chat. And some facetime and  you know, accepting graciously whatever find beverage they offer you. In Peru, sometimes it’s Chicho, which is a fermented corn drink.

Cristina: 6:09 I was recently in Paraguay and they offered us ted today, which is a kind of herbal concoction that they serve cold and you drink through a straw. But the generosity of our farmer partners is always astounds me and they’ll, they will give you anything they have and a lot of times they have beautiful fruits and things from the farm that they offer you as well. And then you know, if we implemented specific project activities with that farmer, we talk about that, you know, if they tried, uh, you know, a new Pr, uh, compost or went to a workshop around how to improve their pest management of the bugs that were eating their crops. So we, you know, we talk about that and how, how it went and what they, what suggestions they might have. So that’s, that’s in a nutshell that, that could repeat itself over a couple of days. And sometimes I go and we do workshops. If we’re workshop coming up in Peru to train more people in a capitalization, education program curriculum that we have so that we can offer that education program to more cooperatives in the future.

Kate: 7:28 That’s such a great picture of a sort of daily process of what this might be like. Thanks for that.  Just like as a basic 101, what is a producer co-op in the context of Latin America?

Cristina: 7:42 Yeah, so again, Latin America is pretty large and produce our co op could mean a lot of things. My experience is mainly with coffee and get cow small farmer, producer, co-ops in Peru and Ecuador and Dominican Republic. So but given that, I think there are some generalizations we can make, the most essential function that these cooperatives provide is purchasing the raw product that the farmers are producing.

Cristina: 8:12 And a lot of times they’re aggregating it and providing a service of a postharvest processing they call it. So taking the raw product and turning it into a semi-finished product for export. So in the case of cacao for example, it needs to be fermented and then dried. And often you have better quality control and if you do that for many farmers at once versus the farmers doing individually. So the co op serves that function and also they’re the ones out there looking for international markets and clients and you know they serve as the face of the farmers in the kind of international market at the same also they invest some money back into the co ops and services for the farmers. Sometimes that takes the form of like a health campaign where they have an optimologist come and fit people for eyeglasses and or a lot of times it involves them hiring a agricultural technicians to go and support the work on the farms on a daily basis. Just those are just some small examples.

Danielle: 9:24 I have a question specifically on scale and how big some of these cooperatives are. I know you work in a few different countries and kind of what’s the range of how many families are in each cooperative. And I don’t know if you have any opinions on like is there a too big or what’s like the right size for how many family farms are in the cooperative? What your thoughts are on that?

Cristina: 9:51 Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I work with cooperatives that range from a couple hundred producers up to almost 10,000. Wow. And there are, it’s a big one, although in, you know, there’s a cacao co op in Ghana that has I think something like 80,000 members, I mean massive. So it makes, uh, some of the 10,000 member Coopa Look, look small. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right or wrong answer here. I think that each scenario provides different challenges and also different benefits. So when you’re really small, oftentimes the cooperative is like a tight knit family for better or for worse. Right. So, yeah, and it makes sense like if you love your family, but you need a little space from them sometimes. And in those scenarios, often if you are introducing a new technology or a new idea, it’ll be adopted by everyone pretty quickly. And that’s, as long as it’s a good piece of information, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, there can be a lot of infighting and politics that the organizations don’t always mature to the level where they can handle that. And so I think you have a lot of vulnerability at that size sometimes. They also, you know, might not be able to access the same kind of markets that a larger co-op would because they just aren’t producing at a scale that some clients find efficient to buy from.

Cristina: 11:28 But you know, there are successful co-ops at every size, I think. And the larger co-ops you’re able to, they often develop into multifunctional businesses. So they’ll have an arm that does part raw processing. Like they might have a factory where they turn the cacao into cacao powder. They might have their own bank or credit union that serves the members, but also the rest of the community. The challenge with those large cooperatives I’ve seen is they often lose contact with their membership. And so that’s risky. Also, it’s sort of the opposite of a tight-knit family. You just have this loose aggregation of folks that it doesn’t really matter to them that they are a member of this particular co-op. It’s just the one that’s everywhere, you know, it doesn’t feel personal anymore. Yes. Yeah, yeah. To talk about individual farms now, the farms that make up these are the farmers that make up these producer co-ops.

Kate: 12:27 One of the aims of this program, it sounds like focuses on quality. What our issues are about quality when we’re talking about organic farming.

Cristina: 12:38  Yeah. I think issues with quality can range from organic to nonorganic. some of the challenges specifically with quality for organic farmers are they can’t use the same chemicals to combat like insects and different diseases that, conventional farmers are able to access. And so sometimes they can be much more success susceptible to those things and that will, of course, affect your quality and your productivity. On the flip side, I think organic farmers tend to have more diversity of, of product and of, uh, crops within their farm. And that from a flavor perspective and a variety of perspective is usually a benefit. And so, you know, I work in part in,it’s kind of like the specialty good cacao, area and you have more diversity and interesting flavors that can come from organic farms usually then it conventional farm in. That’s a generalization.

Kate: 13:54 When you say diversity, you mean like they might be planting more than one variety will have this of cacao or different kinds of things other than cacao as well or both?

Cristina: 14:03 Yeah. And cacao has thousands upon thousands of varieties and it’s one of the most complex foods on earth in terms of variety of flavors. There’s like 6,000 aromatic compounds. Weight might be 600 beyond that a lot. Yeah. I’m, it’s up there with wine and coffee and those other products that people really like to save her and look for a flavor notes and having a different varieties of cacao on one farm can give you more complexity of flavor and also other crops are going to interact and, have an impact on what people call sometimes terroir, which is the taste of a place or a unique flavor of a product.

Kate: 14:53 I’ve heard that before. Referring to other kinds of products like wine. What is … are farmers … Is this sort of coincidence or is it something farmers are deliberately working to develop?

Cristina: 15:06 Often it’s just a circumstance. You know, you inherit a farm that’s got a mess of varieties and it can be a challenge because if you don’t know, you know, what those, what the potential is of those varieties. It, you know, what good is it to you. And also in terms of farm management, sometimes the trees aren’t planted in rows. They’re just kind of scattered all over the place. They’ve been pollinated by who knows what. And you have, you don’t know exactly what varieties you have. So it can be messy, but if you know what you’re doing, you can really benefit from, from that diversity and complexity

Kate: 15:51 People on the consumer end. And certainly, people in the middle, people who are buying these commodities have sophisticated ideas about what qualities are desirable or what tastes delicious or what can get the most money. Are Farmers included in those conversations.?

Cristina: 16:43 We talked a little bit about wine a second ago and that is, is a crop where farmers are very often included in those conversations. The products that equal exchange works with and as of yet we don’t work with wine but someday maybe. Yeah. Here’s to that! The answer is no. Farmers aren’t always included in those conversations. I’d take, coffee has come a really long way in that aspect and Equal Exchange was really a pioneer in that movement to include farmer’s in conversations about quality. And my office mate is the green coffee buyer and she was just looking at hundreds of reports of quality analysis that they’ve done in our lab here that she’s bringing down to Peru to talk to the farmers. About next week. So this is very much an ongoing thing. And in it’s been a lot slower, that development, but it’s happening now and I’d like to think our project has played some part in that.

Kate: 17:17 Yeah. What are, what are the advantages, just to break it down, why would a farmer who’s really good at growing plants need to know how the finished product is gonna Taste?

Cristina: 17:28 So a product like cacao is the prices generally determined by the New York Stock Exchange and not by the quality of the product that they’re offering. And having some knowledge about the quality of your product gives you a voice and power in negotiations around its value in a way that many farmers typically have not been included in before or given before.

Kate: 18:00 So how does it work? How do they, how do they get included?

Cristina: 18:05 Good question. Yeah, I think, first and foremost starting to ask the question, you know, oh, I didn’t know I could, you know, that there was more than one price for cacao. Our work has focused on in the project, really collaborating with some of the star co-ops in our supply chain who had already made some advances in this area too. Generally work at the Co-op level, but we worked with TCho chocolate in San Francisco to, uh, install little mini-factories, which we call the TCho calls, flavor labs at the cooperatives so that they can process small amounts of the Ra or the fermented and dried cow beans into chocolate or with or without sugar. That’s the way that most chocolate makers evaluate the quality of a product and make decisions about whether or not to buy. But many farmers had never even tasted their own beans and chocolate form. And so,

Kate: 19:07 wow. I just want to stop and think about that. That’s crazy.

Cristina: 19:11 Yeah, it’s a, it is a little bit mind-blowing, you know. So just even the gotten of leveling the playing field with the tools that are available was, was a huge step. And then from there it’s really sitting down at, at the table and tasting together and Cho and equal exchange. And our farmer producers got together a few times a year and we’re tasting chocolate or unsweetened chocolate together and trying to see if we were coming up with similar flavor characteristics and qualities and from there developing written documents that would help people speak the same language when they were discussing their results. So we worked together on a tasting form for Cocoa. And you know, related things to help people have, have a universal tool to look at and speak the same language. Yeah, that’s really inspiring. It’s easy to see how that can make a big difference.

Danielle: 20:20 Can I ask one question, thinking about some farmers for the first time tasting their own chocolate, is there any kind of funny experience that you can think of a reaction to that and you know, folks being excited or, wow, I didn’t know that, you know, when I was growing, could, you know how it tasted? I don’t know. I’m just interested in that like kind of reaction that they might’ve had to taste their own chocolate for the first time. It seems like it could really cool.

Cristina: 20:48 Yeah. You know it’s really fun, but in fun in the way that looking, I’ve, I’ve been, I’ve been a participant in tastings like this also, but often what we would advise the coops to do, or they came up with this idea on their own was create a chocolate and unsweetened chocolate made from beans that were processed really badly and one that was processed really well. And right away the farmers can tell the difference in the flavor and the quality of off, you know, uh, fermentation changes the flavor dramatically and it reduces the bitterness and the stringency of the cacao. And so if you don’t ferment properly, you taste that right away and you just want to spit it out. So and on the other hand, it really good, good cow. That is the process. Well, even without sugar is going to taste really nice. And so I’ve, I’ve been at workshops where they offer, you know, kind of a good example and a bad example, but they don’t tell you. And the faces on the of the participants are just kind of priceless. And I, yeah, I’ve seen that many times. It’s, to be honest, but it’s a, it’s a really great educational tool and I know that some of the farmer co-op quality managers have taken the beans from a particular farmer back to that farmer and said, you know how you’re harvesting all those underwrite pods. Yeah, here’s what you’re giving us and we can’t sell this to clients or we get penalized for it. And once they taste it, they understand.

Danielle: 22:33 Kind of going off of that in regards to this project, how much of it is kind of producer-led? And do you kind of feel as though small scale farmers are either represented underrepresented and the scope of this and what are your thoughts on that?

Cristina: 22:56 Yeah, you know, it occasionally we get together with other grantees from the cooperative development program and every time we go to these meetings, people are kind of astonished by the, by the way, our project seems to work and I’m always astonished by the way their projects work. But they’re like, you give the money directly to the co-ops and then they do the work. I’m like, what are you doing? This is the cooperative development program. A lot of them work through third parties or consultants to deliver services to the Co-op, but never deposit the money directly to the ops themselves.

Cristina: 23:38 But I think we have the advantage of working with co-ops that are developed to the point where they’re able to export. I mean they’re, they’re fairly sophisticated in the world and the co-op world. Yeah. But we also trust them and they, you know, we have the good fortune of them often trusting us. And so we establish a very clear work plan in a very clear budget. And then we make deposits and then they have to send us receipts on all those deposits. And if they don’t, they don’t get another disbursement. They also know that it, that their performance on the grant affects the commercial relationship and our, you know, if they do really poorly on the grant, it’s not going to necessarily damage the commercial relationship, but it’s not gonna improve it either. So we, we don’t, we don’t, uh, use one to leverage the other and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s, it’s like engaging with a family member on a business project.

Kate: 24:36 If one thing goes poorly than the other one, it’d be awkward at Thanksgiving.

Cristina: 24:39 Right, exactly. Yes. Well spoken. And so I think, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s, I would say yes, it’s, it’s very much producer led in the design and the execution and the ownership. And One, one statistic I can give you, cause we were just evaluating our project, is I don’t know many times when people look at what charity to donate to, they look at how much goes to overhead. And I actually calculated that equal exchange has taken of 100% of the funds available to us, 3% to execute this project. And 97% of the funds went directly to the co-ops or services that directly benefited the co-ops. And so I think that’s pretty good. Yeah.

Danielle: 25:39 Yeah. I just, just ask that question and I have an international relations background and a lot of times that would be something that folks were concerned about. People just kind of going in and having their perspective telling people how to do things, but having a different energy around it saying, no, actually, you know, this, it’s important for the involvement to be produced led and having feeling that feeling of ownership and control over your own projects and that changes the energy behind it to me. But

Kate: 26:08 yeah, you also alluded to the fact that we’re talking about very different countries here. Something that’s going on in Peru with, you know, cacao is going to be different from something that’s going on in the Dominican Republic. Do people in the cooperatives decide what’s important for their specific group?

Cristina: 26:29 Yeah. I mean it’s kind of a balance, right? Sometimes you learn about something that’s going really well and you want to be able to share that with, with a cooperative that’s having a different challenge, even if they’re in a different space. But it, wherever possible, we try to have the producers tell those stories directly to other producers rather than saying, well in, you know, use Becca, Stan, I saw they did this and you should try this. You know, it’s, it’s very different than bringing someone from Uzbekistan together with someone from Honduras to share that experience.

Kate: 27:04 Yeah, cut out the middleman.

Cristina: 27:05 Yeah. Well, and it just, it has more impact if it, if you hear it from someone who you can relate to in their experience and goodness knows they don’t grow any cacao in Uzbekistan.

Kate: 27:16 Yet.

Cristina: 27:17 But that said like producer co-ops around the world, tend to face some similar challenges or I mean, and we even find we have similar challenges as Equal Exchange. The worker co-op with some of our producer co-op partners. Like, how do you get people to run for the board? How do you get them educated to run for the board? This is a question that I see here and we were just talking about it today actually. And it, I’ll be talking about it with a producer co-op, the Banana Co-op in Peru that I’m visiting next week. Same problem.

Kate: 27:49 That’s great. Yeah.

Danielle: 27:50 Yeah. Even thinking about having a cooperative that are geographically dispersed and trying to still honor that connection of the members together and how that can be more challenging as cooperatives grow. And I know that’s a problem. And that equal exchange has that, you know, you would kind of alluded to before talking about the different scale of the

Kate: 28:11 yeah. Big Cops that don’t see each other that much, where farmers might feel isolated or less connected. Makes Sense. Yeah. Yeah. Can you talk about information sharing that seems to be an ethos of this program?

Cristina: 28:23 Yeah, I would say it’s an ethos of equal exchange to I and I, my colleague Beth Ann Casperson, who I think did a previous podcast, which everyone should listen to, is really, such a proponent of this and you know, in the coffee world, equal exchange has shared a lot of information about how we roast or how we work with our partner co-ops. And that philosophy I think works its way into many things that we do include this project. And so one area I already highlighted was trying to have producers share information with other producers. So we organized over 15 different coop exchanges through the previous project, bringing together all of the representatives from all of the cops in their project to talk about specific issues related to quality productivity or financial management of the co-ops .

Danielle: 29:20 And kind of thinking, taking a step back, thinking about a timeline. And you know, originally the project was supposed to be five years and it’s kind of had three extensions, right? So that’s a huge difference in longevity and creating a longterm relationship. How have you been because of these extensions? How have you been able to see some of the, of the project directly?

Kate: 29:44 And if I can jump in, what’s next?

Cristina: 29:46 Yeah, sure. the, the extensions of time, we’re kind of a blessing and a curse. I mean you, when you think you plan for a five-year project and then it turns into eight, sometimes you’re running out of ideas or you know, it’s at what point do your teammates from other cops go and work on other things. But on the plus side, I would say, you know, trees take a long time to grow. So I’m, and cacao trees planted from seed, we’ll take about five years to mature and eve if, so, if you start right away on a productivity project, you may or may not see the results at the end of your project term. And this project has allowed us to really see some of those developments in productivity. You know, we did a bunch of what they call model farms.

Cristina: 30:39 So you know, kind of demonstrative farms within certain areas of the Co-op that do all of the improvements to the farm and they are supposed to serve as, as a model for their neighbors at those, model farms. The productivity went up by, you know, on average in some places like 496%. Wow. And so being able to see that is really satisfying and then you’re able to really share that knowledge. And, and I think with this extension of time, we’ve been able to much more kind of systematically and intentionally create records and tools that we can then use going forward. And that hopefully, you know, in the spirit of sharing are available on a wide scale to whoever finds them useful. All of these are products that we’ve created or tools, resources are actually on the equal exchange website. So feel free to check out the cooperative development page —

Kate: 31:43 –if you’re planning to start a cacao farm yeah.

Cristina: 31:46 Or you want to learn how to taste chocolate.

Kate: 31:49 Yeah, all right. You’re speaking my language. Yeah, yeah.

Cristina: 31:52 And what’s next?  Equal Exchange applied for and received funding for another cooperative development project that started in 2018 and we’ll go to her until 2023 or 2026 or who knows how many extents. Yeah. Yeah. That has to do with the government not knowing how much money to allocate at a particular time. Something that the shutdown is highlighting. Maybe they could use some financial management training.

Kate: 32:23 Great. Thank you so much, Cristina. You’ve been awesome. It’s really fun to talk with you and learn about what is going on.

Danielle: 32:32 Yeah. Thanks for chatting so much.

Kate: 32:37 Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by equal exchange, inc a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equal exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by equal exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

Humanizing the Food System

By Danielle Robidoux, Organizer, Equal Exchange

Time, it is something the modern-day shopper is not likely to have in abundance. Walking through the aisles at a grocery store, our senses are inundated. Everyone is trying to get our attention, our dollar, our buying patterns or demographics to add to their marketing research, so we can be placed in a box, minimized to a mere statistic. When we pluck a product off of a shelf, it usually ends there. Who out there really wants to take the time to get to know us, find out who we are? Turn customers into humans, statistics into conversations, aggregate data into community, and dollars into real change?

As one of the leaders in Equal Exchange’s organizing initiative that started a few years ago, my job has been to do just that. Humanize the food system, you. My job has been to imagine, in a world that idealizes technology over human interaction, self-interest over community, productivity over sustainability, and profit margins over our planet, that despite all odds, we can build something real. We can at least exist in this corporately dominated space as an authentic organization, with people behind it.

Our first year of this organizing work was a lot of learning, mistakes, missed flights, and late night conversations debating what the hell we were doing. It also included, for some reason–a lot of pizza. We spent this first year clarifying and developing what we were building. Our second year focused on our community, who are the folks who have been drinking Equal Exchange coffee and buying our products for all these years? We created spaces for them to engage in peer-to-peer learning, we showed up physically and virtually across the United States. We gathered together, some events with just a few people, others with hundreds. Each encounter left us inspired by everything folks were doing in their communities to build a better world, brick-by-brick.

EE Event

Danielle pictured left at an organizing event this past October at Equal Exchange’s cafe in Boston.

Now, going into our third year of this work, in addition to opening up our own democracy as a worker cooperative to active citizen-consumers, we are organizing this community into campaign work. Work that we not only see as vital to the future survival of Equal Exchange, but to an independent food system more generally. Large food conglomerates are changing the rules of the game, they have been for years. In recent years, this continued shift has seemingly left the independent food world devoid of oxygen. Independent companies are being bought everyday by larger companies that undermine their original vision, water down standards and practices, and negotiate terms that adhere to their own interests, solely in the name of power and profit.

This has led Equal Exchange to endorse the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018(A tongue-twister for sure). Sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Mark Pocan, this bill would essentially act as a pause on mergers in the food economy, allowing it a moment to breathe. It would then formulate a commission that would for 18 months evaluate the impact of consolidation on the food system, and carve a path forward.

The bill is in the process of being reintroduced in the first-half of this year. New conditions have led the group working on this bill to believe there is a greater chance for it to pass, at least in the House, with your help. Consolidation across the board has increased prices for consumers, decreased wages and benefits for workers, strangled rural communities, while simultaneously setting record breaking profit margins. Power has shifted so drastically we believe power needs to be shifted back into the hands of the independent food economy, an economy that can no longer exist without your participation.

While we all seem to have a scarcity of time in our lives, time is necessary to accept our shared responsibility of this planet, this food system, and the families and communities of which we are a part. This work is not easy, it is complex, and time and energy is what it will require. I invite you to email me, get angry, get curious, whatever you do, get involved.

The Dairy Crisis: Intertwining the World of Trade, Livelihoods and Consumers

By Emily Ambrose, Equal Exchange

In early January, I wrote a piece highlighting my experience as a dairy farmer and the path that led to my work at Equal Exchange. In this piece below, I hope to dig into elements of the dairy crisis and raise awareness of the consequences of building a food system for large corporations and commodity markets.

The dairy industry is a world in its own.The issues in dairy spread far and wide, intertwining the world of trade, the livelihoods of small farmers and farm-workers, the resilience of rural communities, and lives of consumers. It is a complex and very challenging industry and supply chain to follow unless you’re deeply and actively linked into it as a farmer, marketer, processor, or grocery industry insider. A key driver is the compounding nature of the dairy crisis; each problem exacerbates and drives the other; and to a huge extent this componding is a direct effect of a historic US policy structure that has benefited large agribusiness, the corporatization of agriculture, and facilitated agricultural “dumping” into other countries.

It’s important to know milk like other crops are traded as a global commodity, which means that milk price is subject to market fluctuations. Dairy farmers in the U.S., conventional and organic, get paid for their “fluid milk” per every 100/pounds of milk. Dairy farmers are subject to the market and contracts with milk buyers who are usually processors. Processors, vertically integrated retailers (like Aldi and Walmart), and large distributors control where a majority of the profit is made with the production of bottled milk, cheeses, yogurts, and miscellaneous milk by-products (i.e. protein isolates).

Another issue is in the rise of mega-dairies throughout this country. On an average mega-dairy there is usually a few thousand cows who are milked two-to-three times a day and typically live most of their lives in a barn rotating into a milking parlor; these mega dairies usually are defined as “confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs.” In conjunction with the low market prices, is this surplus of milk coming from these mega-dairies (both conventional and organic). The surplus of milk has no demand ready to absorb it and is flooding out the conventional and organic markets to a new level. In addition to this surplus, CAFO systems typically deny basic human and animal rights by their design, intent, and demand in my opinion. Trade relations also play a role to this part of the supply chain. The U.S. dairy industry is increasingly reliant on flooding and dumping their milk into foreign markets to stay afloat (if you recall the negotiations of the new NAFTA in late 2018 to include opening of both Canada’s dairy market); something that is not an unfamiliar practice historically for US surplus’.

The effects of low prices to farmers also comes with low and inadequate pay and benefits for laborers. It’s surprising, however, the cost of dairy processed products is increasing. The corporate ownership and consolidation of the seed, fuel, equipment, processing, and retail industries are all factors affecting the livelihoods of dairy farmers and farm-workers throughout this country. I’d like to also note that this view of the dairy crisis does not include a full actualization of an aging farm population, farm-worker injustices, migrant laborer challenges, markets without entry for new dairy farmers, and direct-sale restrictions ; all hyper-crucial issues in dairy that need addressing.

In midst of the grim outlook for dairy, progress is being made in trying to reform the industry and create viable markets and policy that protects farmers, farm-workers, and consumers.Three strong initiatives that address different issues in dairy, reinforcing the industries own challenges and complexity are Wisconsin Farmers Union Dairy Together initiative, Migrant Justice Milk with Dignity Campaign, and the National Organic Coalition “Restore Fairness in Organic Dairy”.

Some solutions include the creation of value-added enterprises for dairy; however, distribution and supply chain logistics into conventional retail spaces can be a challenge. Part of this solution rests in policy which happens through changing laws, breaking monopolies, restructuring markets, and like many issues in the world: redistribution of wealth equitably. A large part of how I see the solution is us waking up to the realities of our food system and being vocal, intentional, and curious to change them. In the weeks to come, look out for a piece from Equal Exchange’s cheese team who are working domestically to explore new supply chains for small dairy farmers and producer groups.

Natural Process Coffee

Have you ever tried natural process coffee? If you have, you probably noticed a difference! Known as “naturals” in the specialty coffee industry, these coffees impart a heavy, expansive mouthfeel and flavor notes that are fruity and complex. Equal Exchange now offers natural process coffee — and fans of this style are devoted. But what makes naturals so distinct?

Drying Coffee with the Natural Process

Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee plant. Like other seeds, they’re found within the fruit. In coffee-growing regions around the world, farmers wait for this fruit to ripen. Once the sugars are fully developed and the cherries are mature, it’s time to harvest them from the bushes where they grow. But what happens next? That depends.

Hundreds of small round coffee cherries are gathered on a cloth
These coffee cherries have just been harvested in Honduras.

Often, farmers remove the pulp that surrounds the seeds. Because this is commonly done with water, the method is called wet processing. But in some cases, the de-pulping step is skipped entirely. The coffee bean is processed within its cherry. The result is dry-processed – or natural-processed – coffee.

After farmers harvest the cherries, they spread them out on raised drying beds or bamboo mats to dry, with the beans still inside the fruit. The flesh shrinks down, making the beans resemble large raisins. They lose moisture over the course of the drying period, creating a dense sweetness. The process may sounds simple, but it takes skill. Workers must carefully remove unripe or defective beans by hand. They must also turn the coffee cherries regularly so that they dry evenly in the sun. Once drying is complete, which can take anywhere from twelve days to three weeks, beans are put through a hulling machine. This removes the dried pulp, parchment and silverskin. The green beans are now ready to be roasted.

Natural process coffee fruit dries in the sun on raised platforms
Ethiopian coffee farmers dry their beans as part of the natural process.

Environmentally Friendly – and Innovative

Natural processing is the most environmentally friendly method of processing coffee. Unlike with wet processing methods, there is no wastewater that must be evaporated in soak pits or filtered before it can be safely returned to rivers and streams. And when access to water is limited, as it is in many parts of the world, natural processing is especially practical. It makes sense that this method is very common in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated!  Equal Exchange works with small-scale farmer partners at SCFCU, located in the Sidama region of the country, to source the natural process beans we use in our popular Organic Ethiopian coffee.

The success of the dry-processing method in Ethiopia has encouraged coffee farmers in other parts of the world to turn to natural process coffee, too. Experimenting with processing is a one way to improve quality. Farmers at the COMSA co-op in Honduras are leaders in innovation. They’ve discovered that beans from the same lot can sometimes garner a higher score on the Specialty Coffee Associations of America’s 100-point scale when processed naturally, as opposed to with the wet process. COMSA’s willingness to try new things and their commitment to quality results in a final product that tastes phenomenal! In Fall 2018, a limited-edition seasonal in Equal Exchange’s Women in Coffee series featured natural-processed beans from COMSA.

A group of twenty five people pose together under tropical trees.
A group of coffee farmers with their families and EE visitors at COMSA in Honduras.

Almond Butter Cups

Offer a snack that is vegan, paleo, gluten-free … and tastes decadent! You and your family can enjoy while feeling good about the ingredients you used and knowing how they were sourced!

Three chocolate almond cups on a plate next to a bag of fair trade chocolate chips.
4.6 from 5 votes

Almond Butter Cups

We like that these cups take very little time but fully satisfy your cravings for something chocolatey, sweet and crunchy. Plus, they’re made with organic, fairly traded ingredients!

Course Dessert, Snack
Keyword almond butter, Chocolate
Total Time 15 minutes
Servings 12


Almond Butter Filling:

  • 1/2 cup almond butter (Make your own with Equal Exchange Almonds or use store-bought if you’re short on time.)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon organic maple syrup

Chocolate Mixture:

  • 10 oz. Organic Bittersweet Chocolate Chips
  • 2 tablespoons melted organic coconut oil (We like Dr. Bronner’s because it’s fairly traded and whole kernel which gives it a nuttier flavor!)



  1. Add almond butter, vanilla extract and maple syrup to a bowl. Mix until smooth. Set aside.
  2. Place chocolate chips and coconut oil in a heatproof bowl. Set over a pot of boiling water (but not touching the water) and stir until melted.

  3. Place paper cupcake lines inside the cups of a muffin tin. Add a tablespoon of melted chocolate to each cupcake liner. Use a spoon to work the chocolate up the sides of the liner. Place the whole muffin tin in the freezer for five minutes, until the chocolate hardens.

  4. Remove tin from the freezer and place one scoop of the almond butter mixture in the center of each chocolate filled cupcake liner.

  5. Top each filled cupcake liner with remaining chocolate until the almond butter is completely covered. Place two whole almonds on the top of each almond butter cup.

  6. Place the cups in the freezer for five more minutes to firm up.

  7. Remove from the freezer and garnish the tops with coarse sea salt if you’d like.
  8. Note: It’s recommended to store the cups in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve them. The airtight container ensures that the chocolate doesn’t absorb any other food smells and flavors that are also in the fridge.

Recipe Notes

Recipe adapted from JoyfulHealthyEats.com

Super-Savory Snack Mix

Party animals won’t be able to stop reaching for this snack on game day — it’s tangy, salty and a little spicy!

A close up of a snack mix containing fair trade nuts
5 from 1 vote

Super-Savory Snack Mix

A twist on an old favorite, using fair trade cashews and almonds, this mix pairs well with iced tea or ice cold beer!
Course Appetizer
Cuisine American
Keyword Nuts
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Servings 6



  1. Preheat oven to 250.
  2. Melt butter on stovetop or in microwave.
  3. Pour into a large bowl, stirring in sesame oil, hot sauce and soy sauce. Add the spices, tasting and adjusting to suit your preferences.
  4. Break pita chips into bite-sized bits.
  5. Add pita chips, nuts and popcorn and stir to coat everything with the butter mixture. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet.
  6. Bake 10 minutes, stir, then bake another 10 minutes.

Looking Behind the Barcodes

Next week, the Equal Exchange organizing deparment will be cohosting a webinar with Oxfam America on their Behind the Barcodes Campaign. Join us on Tuesday, January 29th from 4-5pm EST by emailing eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop.

Reposted from June 22, 2018 from Oxfam

By: Becky Davis, Oxfam

whole foods banner

Activists demonstrate outside a Whole Foods in Boston as part of the launch of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign. (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

An estimated 22 million people around the world work for food manufacturing companies alone. But that number is just the tip of the iceberg. Millions more work in formal or informal roles, such as seasonal labor on plantations or on fishing vessels at sea.

And while supermarkets earn big profits, many of these workers, year-round or seasonal, face harsh and dangerous working conditions, earn low wages and live in poverty, struggle to feed their own families. From forced labor aboard fishing boats in Southeast Asia, to poverty wages on Indian tea plantations, and hunger among fruit and vegetable pickers in Southern Italy, human rights abuses are widespread among the women and men who produce the food that we buy from supermarkets around the world.

The global food industry generates billions in revenue every year, but the rewards are increasingly skewed toward the powerful. The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains in the world generate trillions in sales and billions in profits, and are keeping a growing share of the money we spend in the checkout line – while the small-scale farmers and workers producing the food get less and less. Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we eat. That’s why Oxfam launched a new campaign this week seeking to expose the economic exploitation of millions of small-scale farmers and workers face in food supply chains and to mobilize the power of the people around the world to help end it.

In our research, we found that:

  • The average earnings of small-scale farmers and workers in the supply chains of 12 common products—from South African grapes, to Peruvian avocados, to Indian tea—is not enough for a decent standard of living, and where women make up most of the workforce, the gap is greater.
  • Supermarkets have kept an increasing share of the money their consumers spend, while the share that reaches workers and food producers has fallen, sometimes to less than 5 percent.
  • The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains generated nearly a trillion dollars in sales, $22 billion in profit, and returned $15 billion to shareholders in 2016.
  • Food insecurity is common, according to surveys of hundreds of small-scale farmers and workers across five different countries working in the supply chains of supermarkets.

As part of the campaign, Oxfam looked at the policies and practices of some of the biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in the US and Europe, focusing on four themes: women equality, worker’s rights, small-scale producers, and transparency.

In the US, Oxfam assessed and ranked six of the biggest retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Costco, Whole Foods and Ahold Delhaize, the parent company to retailers such as Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop. In general, US supermarkets scored very low across all four themes assessed, demonstrating that they have little awareness on these issues and have not yet chosen to prioritize human rights, due diligence, supply chain traceability, living wages, and gender inequality issues.

Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia looked specifically at working conditions in seafood processing in Southeast Asia, interviewing workers from some of the biggest shrimp processors and exporters in Thailand and Indonesia that supply to supermarkets like Whole Foods, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Costco, Albertsons and Walmart. Through the interviews, we found that wages are so low that 60 percent of women workers surveyed in Thailand were severely food insecure, workers in both countries struggled with controlled access to drinking water and toilet breaks, and were forced to put up with routine verbal abuse by supervisors.

One woman, Melati, told us that she was trained to peel 600 shrimps per hour but was never able to attain that goal. The conditions she was working in at the processing plant in Indonesia were dangerous and she struggled to breathe and burned her hands because she didn’t have proper protective equipment when handling cleaning chemicals like chlorine.

Melati and women like her toil in processing plants in Indonesia and Thailand for little pay. In fact, we calculated that it would take women like Melati 4,000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns in a year.

Our analysis found that US supermarkets can do much more to support the millions of workers, small-holder farmers, and fisherfolk who grow and produce our food every day. And it isn’t just about paying a higher price, though that would help. As supermarkets have gotten bigger so too has their power. This allows them to set the terms for how they will source their food, from quality and timing to price and risk. Throughout supply chains, more and more risk is being placed on farmers and suppliers and the pressure to produce quality products under extreme time pressures is being borne by workers as well. As our US Supermarket Scorecard shows, the industry has more to do to take the human suffering out of our food.

You and I spend enough at the grocery store to ensure women like Melati have decent working conditions and earn a living wage. Supermarkets depend on us, their customers, so they have to listen. Call on supermarkets to help end the human suffering behind the barcodes by taking action and joining the Behind the Barcode campaign today!

To learn more about how you can be an integral part of Behind the Barcodes join our webinar on January 29th from 4-5pm by emailing eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop.