From Missouri to Tanzania In Search of Chocolate

by Shawn Askinosie / photographs courtesy of Askinosie and Bob Linder
Every year Askinosie Chocolate Founder Shawn Askinosie travels from his home in Springfield, Missouri, to Askinosie's "cocoa origin countries" -- Tanzania, The Philippines, Honduras and Ecuador -- to direct trade with the cocoa bean farmers he works with and check on community development projects Askinosie has started. Here he shares his 10 favorite moments from his 2013 Cocoa Origin Trip to remote southwestern Tanzania.

1. I was able to plan a 26-hour layover in Istanbul before heading on to Tanzania. Because food is not only my job but also a big part of my life, I make eating a priority when I experience a new place. I have wanted to visit Turkey for most of my life, so I took full advantage of my short time there: I tried simit (a Turkish savory bread sold on every street corner); ayran (a staple drink made from yogurt, water and salt); a traditional chicken kebab; and baklava. I also really enjoyed sitting on a little stool at a sidewalk cafe sipping black Turkish coffee. The added benefit of an extended layover like this: It helps with jet lag, since it's the same time zone as my destination.

2. In each of our origin countries, we are involved with projects in the farmers' communities. During my trip to Tanzania last summer, our team brought fully loaded laptops and projectors to the Mwaya Secondary School in Kyela. Since they don't have electricity, they use a generator, but the fuel is too expensive, so one of the first stops I made was to visit the Kyela District government offices to follow up with them on their promise to provide electricity to the school. At the meeting, I told the government official that we will stop our work at the school if they can't demonstrate true partnership and provide electricity. He agreed, and they began work immediately while I was there. This is another reason why we practice Direct Trade with farmers -- I would never have been able to make this progress if I didn't show up in person.

3. One afternoon, I met with a secondary cocoa farmer group we've been working with at the foot of Mount Livingstone on Lake Nyasa. The members of this group -- which is led by a woman, a rarity in Tanzania -- were eagerly waiting to show me the beans we purchased. Typically there are some issues to troubleshoot (usually having to do with mistakes in storing and harvesting) but the beans were stunning and the group was supremely well organized. This was a huge relief. Together we performed a cut test on a random sample of cocoa beans, where we cut the beans in half, examine the inside and grade each sample with a special system we have developed in Swahili.

4. I spent one night in the home of one of our farmer families at the foot of Mount Livingstone. My hosts prepared a wonderful dinner of Kyela rice, beef and fish and they bought bottles of orange Fanta for the occasion, which they could not afford, but that's what they do here -- something I call radical hospitality. I set up my mosquito net around a mat on the floor and as I was falling asleep I could hear drums in the distance, and the mother singing a lullaby to her baby in Swahili in the next bedroom. I was humbled, not because of the conditions here, but because of the attitude with which my hosts thrive in them. I was reminded yet again of why it's important that I travel to see our farmer groups. It's not just so that we can teach them, but so they can teach us.

5. The next morning I woke up to a rooster crowing, along with more songbirds than I could count, and then a group of farmers took me on a bicycle tour from one small farm to the next. We rode on trails, as roads do not exist. There is something so freeing and joyful about a bike ride under a cocoa tree canopy.

6. One day I led a workshop for the farmers on how to roast the cocoa beans and make cocoa liquor, hot chocolate and tea from the cocoa bean shells. Compared to countries in South America, Tanzania does not have much of a cocoa history, so this is not only fun, but important. Now this group can develop a fuller understanding of flavor possibilities, which depend on how they treat the bean post-harvest.

7. One afternoon, I met with about 200 Mwaya students under a huge shade tree. Most are in their mid-teens. We spoke in English, not Swahili (which was a good thing considering I speak very little Swahili, although I'm learning). Since this was my third visit, the kids and teens seemed really comfortable around me. We basically just sat and talked. One student told me that he wants to become a doctor and come back to his village. He is the top student (or what they call "Head Boy") in the school. I was inspired as I listened to him speak and I asked myself, "Is our partnership with this school helping remove these obstacles to his success?" That is our hope.

8. There are about 50 farmers in the co-op we work with, and during one particularly productive and enlightening afternoon, we talked about their 10-year-vision plan. They said they hope to see improvements in electricity, housing and transportation (they want to get motorbikes and trucks to help transport beans). Interestingly, it is not their goal to grow in size, but to diversify into other businesses. One of the elder farmers said, "I'm an old man but this discussion makes me feel young again."

9. I typically ate the school lunch of corn, hominy and beans -- the same meal prepared for 900 students who now have lunch everyday thanks to a self-sustaining lunch program we started at the Mwaya Secondary School in June. The PTA of the school harvests delicious Kyela rice, which we buy to sell in the States, and then we return 100 percent of the profits to them so they can purchase and prepare local food for the students' lunches. We all agreed on a timetable for the Mwaya PTA to take over the project completely. We've basically been providing them with access to the market for their product, and now we are teaching them how to do it themselves. This is what sustainability is all about. By 2016, we will serve in an advisory capacity only.

10. On my last day in Tanzania, many of the farmers told me that because of our cocoa bean purchases they were able to afford the school fees for their children. This reinforced for me how important it is to share the profits with these farmers and pay them above Fair Trade prices.

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