In 2013 Chris Cuello, who at the time worked for MARS Chocolate in the United States was selected to be that year’s MARS Ambassador. This assignment brought him via Amsterdam – where he learned about UTZ – to the cocoa growing regions of Côte d’Ivoire to understand how cocoa is grown, learn about the people that grow it and share their stories. Read about his incredible journey.
My once in a lifetime experience…
It is a rare occasion that one is given the opportunity to expand your perspective and immerse yourself in something new – where cultural norms, living standards, educational levels and even the language is completely foreign. I am curious, excited and even a little scared by the journey I embarked upon this week. It will take me on a month-long journey around the world from my home in Long Valley, New Jersey, USA to the city of Amsterdam in Holland and ultimately into remote cocoa growing regions of Côte d’Ivoire in Africa.
My name is Christopher Cuello and I have been working for Mars for 16 years in a variety of roles including: working in chocolate factories as an industrial engineer, leading a sales team for the largest customer in the USA and I am currently in a cross-functional role focused on re-engineering our value chain to deliver great customer service. First and foremost, I am a father and a husband.
About my assignment
My assignment began on Monday, September 30 2013 in the center of Amsterdam, where I spent a week learning about UTZ Certified. On October 9, I traveled into the remote cocoa growing regions of Côte d’Ivoire to understand how cocoa is grown, learn about the people that grow it and share their stories. This assignment was important to me for several reasons:
- I want my children and grand children to inherit a healthy planet. Also, I grew up on a farm in Georgia where we grew vegetables and live stock, so farming is in my blood.
- Professionally, this will expand my business acumen in commodities and raw material sourcing.
Below you find frequent updates about my journey.
Enroute to Côte d’Ivoire
It is 14:11 local time and I am flying at 36,000 feet directly over Algiers on an Air France 777. In a few hours, the next phase of my journey will officially begin – Africa… Côte d’Ivoire!
I have spent the last week learning about UTZ Certified. The mission, the people, the successes and challenges. Overall, I am incredibly impressed with their story. At their core, they are all about the farmers. I grew up on a farm in Georgia. The farmers – they are why I am here. I want to know their story. Who are they? What does a normal day entail for them? And what about the children? Their education opportunities? Do they want to be just like Mommy and Daddy?
Ironically as I was taking my malaria medication this morning, I saw a CNN story on the news about a malaria vaccine. The story stated that over 600,000 people die each year in sub-saharan Africa. The majority of them are children. I’ve been away from Lewis and Grayson, my boys, for two weeks. To think that hundreds of thousands of children die from mosquito bites every year is sobering. As an American with an abundance of everything, I’m inspired that the work I’m doing could contribute to better lives for these children. At the same time I feel a sense of guilt and wonder if I am ready for this? We will see.
Cargill Project Co-op Academy
This event, celebrating the first graduating class of farmers that completed Cargill’s training focused on build new skills, was widely attended by many dignitaries (including the Cote d’Ivoire Minister of Agricultre), students, farmers and cocoa cooperatives. This is really the only way to reach the estimated 900,000 farmers in CdI. One of the speakers suggested that without certification programs, the farmers would likeky abandon many of their sustainability efforts.
A few of the first graduates!
Meet my host in Côte d’Ivore!
It was clear that my Ivorian host, Siriki Diakite (pictured on the right) was more than just a business associate to the local farmers. He extended his gracious hospitality to me by having me join his family for dinner the last two evenings. The menu consisted of local fare – couscous, chicken, wonderful spicy hot sauce and escargot!
T.I.A. – THIS is Africa!
While preparing to depart for CDI, many people asked if this was my first trip to Africa. As I went to South Africa in 2010, I answered that I had been to Africa before. The sentiment I got from everyone was “You have not been to Africa.” Now I understand.
The first day in pictures…..
We passed numerous trucks loaded with mature rain forest. I can only hope they are from areas where management occurs.
The roads leading into the villages were busy with highly motivated sales people!
First impressions that will last a lifetime…
I saw Cote d’Ivoire in the daylight for the first time yesterday. After being picked up from my “luxury” hotel in Grand Bassam, I travelled by car to Abidjan through many villages and roadside markets. By Western standards, these would be considered slums. I was a bit depressed and sad for the local people, but I quickly realized these people are not poor in spirit! They walk proudly with a spring in their step and everyone I have met has had a warm smile on their face – they live in the moment and I feel I have much to learn from them.
I am learning a lot about the many complex issues in Cote d’Ivoire. For example, one of the causes of deforestation is charcoal. The local people use the charcoal to cook food for their families. Without charcoal, how would they cook their food?
My journey began today with a trip to Agboville, a large community in southern CdI. We began at the local cooperative. We were met by many locals excited to meet us. Then we went to the first cocoa farm to meet Fofana Danon and his family. He has 7 children and became a cocoa farmer in 2005 when his father passed. He knew nothing about cocoa and learned through trial and error until he began to learn about good farming practices through UTZ and Cargill. The highlight of my day was seeing his daughter taste chocolate for the first time! It was priceless and I was so into the moment, I didn’t even think of taking a picture until she was finished.
It takes a village…
More specifically, it takes a village in Soubré, Côte d’Ivoire. I have just had the most incredible experience. While searching for a nice location to shoot some video recapping the journey thus far, we passed a small village with some people sitting on a bench. Immediately, we knew this was the place. So, we stopped to ask if we could film and an amazing chain of events began.
First, as is the custom, we had to meet the Chief. He was sitting down to have a drink of local brew at a table in the middle of an open space in the village. We introduced ourselves, which for me is the entire extent of my French. The rest of the conversation required the aid of my friend and colleague, Siriki Diakite.
We exchanged “the news”, which is the local custom, and then requested permission from the Chief to complete our task. As we are talking, seemingly everyone in the village began to gather around us. The Chief shared that he was honored to have people from so far away come and visit us and he offered us a drink. It was clear the village was excited to have visitors from so far away. I don’t exactly look like a local. I have seen only two white people in the last two days, one of which is my travel companion from UTZ, Herma Hulst. And yet they welcomed us as if we grew up in their village and were returning home from a long journey.
I think my favorite part was when the Chief shared that he was a hunter and asked if I would like to see his quarry. As a fellow hunter, of course I said yes. He had just killed an eight foot boa constrictor that he would be eating.
Another amazing moment was when I shared some chocolate with the Chief and his village. These people have been farming cocoa all their lives, but they rarely, if ever, get chocolate. The smiles on their faces will stay in my heart forever. Even though this village has no running water and no electricity, they have a spirit that is contagious.
What would you do if a group of people – that you had never seen, that looked nothing like you and didn’t speak your language – pulled up in your yard and asked if they could start shooting film and video? It was such an incredible experience, I miss it already. I want to go back.
A hole in my soul
I witnessed a tragedy. I must warn you that what I saw had a profound impact on me and you should prepare yourself for the prose that follows.
While visiting a village in the Soubre District, I saw a young boy who looked about the same age as my oldest son, Lewis who is 10. Wearing only blue jeans rolled mid-way up his calves, his tattered and dirty white shirt was wrapped loosely around his head. He had a bare chest and no shoes. He had a golf-ball sized bulge from his navel, which I assume was an umbilical hernia. His feet were coated with fresh mud.
He was getting water by lowering a bucket into a well. This looked interesting so I went to watch. After pulling up the gallon sized bucket, he dumped it into a large vessel, about the size of a car tire. It held approximately 4 buckets. He then lifted it onto his head and began to weave through the patch work of small houses to an area where a hole had recently been dug. When I say hole, think of an average sized swimming pool. The dirt here reminds me of the red clay in North Georgia. It’s dense and becomes very slick when it gets wet. So, he then poured the water into the hole into a pile of dirt and jumped in the hole and began mixing the water in by stomping up and down with his feet.
At this point, I still don’t understand what he’s doing. So, I asked the translator about what was happening. This boy was preparing mud to make the walls for a new house. The homeowner-to-be was very proud and eager to explain about his new house.
The next part of the story was sobering. As it turns out, this boy was from Benin, a country outside of Côte d’Ivoire and he was being forced to work. My heart sank as this harsh reality set in. This was at 13:00 in the afternoon. This boy had started at 9:00 without a break. I couldn’t help but think of my own son when I saw this boy working. I observed much more closely what was happening from that point on.
After mixing the mud with his bare feet, he used a shovel to throw the mud out onto the bank, where it would be mixed with straw and supported with large bamboo to support the walls. At this point the hole is approximately one meter deep, so removing the mud requires the boy to bend over and then stand up and fully extend to remove the heavy, wet burnt orange colored clay from the hole. He would then take a pick-axe and begin removing more dirt from the sides of the hole. He swung the axe with a balance of speed and precision. There was a rhythmic sound of thumps as the pick axe pierced the hard baked earth and fell off in large chunks. It was then I noticed that the boy had not previously looked at me. Every so often, after 15 or 20 swings at the axe, he would look up at me for a brief moment. As long as I live, I will not forget those brief glances. Had they been longer, I would have had to look away. This process of enlarging the hole, adding water, mixing, and removing mud was repeated over and over and over again.
The blistering sun and 90 degree F (32 degree C) heat roasted him as he worked. There was no shade to be found in the hole. His body was wet from the sweat as the steaming humidity did not allow the sweat to evaporate. Instead it ran down his body, following the path of least resistance and blended into the mud he mixed with his feet. His skin, the color of darkly roasted coffee beans, bore a stark contrast to the whites of his eyes. Those eyes, although they seemed dull and distant, pierced a hole in my soul.
Thankfully, the man offered the boy food consisting of rice and a few scraps of chicken in a small bowl. The boy had no chair to sit in for his brief respite and simply squatted over the bowl. He cupped his hand by pressing his fingers like an excavator and moved the food to his mouth with the same rhythmic pace he used for the pick-axe. He licked his hands clean to take in all the nourishment. I wonder if the man viewed this as an act of generosity or one of necessity, like refueling a car before a journey? I wanted to load the boy in the car with us and take him away, but knew that such an act would not be tolerated and might bring harm to the boy and my traveling companions. So, I offered the homeowner a piece of chocolate and asked if I might also give one to the boy, on his behalf. To my surprise, the man agreed. So, I bent down and unwrapped the chocolate, held it in my hand and gestured toward my mouth, so he would know it was to eat. The boy cowered away and would not look me in the eye. His posture reminded me of a dog who had been abused. He took the chocolate, but was told he would have to finish his lunch first. Then we were asked to leave.
I must also say that the homeowner was not involved with cocoa farming in any way. Before this day, child labor was a foreign concept to me. I am also learning that this is a complex issue. It was explained that this boy is part of a network of children from countries outside Côte d’Ivoire. These countries are so poor that in many of them, the parents cannot feed their children, so they send them to this network. In America, I would have called the police or children’s services. Those resources are not available in their village or anywhere near here. Helplessly, I had no choice – as there is no infrastructure in remove village to deal with this issue. Returning him to his parents was not an option – they put him here. I had to proceed with caution as pressing the issue further could have endangered the boy and my colleagues.
It was incredibly hard for me to leave him there.
This experience has made me research the issue of child labor. UTZ Certified and Mars both have a ZERO Tolerance policy on child labor. In fact, one of the great benefits of UTZ certification is that it requires that children attend school, avoid heavy lifting and must not be involved in the handling or application of any pesticides.
I am also happy to say, that all of the cocoa farmers and co-operatives that we have talked to not only fully understand that they must not use children outside the code standards, they are so proud that they are sending their children to school. One of the villages only had a 10% literacy rate among adults and they are anxious to tell us that their children are in school and can read. In fact, several of the villages showed us their schools and some were even expanding their schools and building new ones!
In closing, I haven’t blogged for a few days because I could not find the strength to tell this story. Part of me died that day and will always be there in the hole. I will always wonder if the boy got to taste the chocolate? I can only hope so. I have not seen my children in over a month now. I really needed to hug them at the end of that day.
Bon Jour! Bon Jour!!!
On a more uplifting note, I had another great day with a visit to a local village outside Soubre. This visit was unique because of some of the local customs of this village. While French is the official and prevailing language here, there are over 60 native languages spoken, and in some locations, such as the village we visited, French is not widely spoken. So, finally, I was not the only person in need of a translator!!!! Yeah!
Another unique aspect of this village was that it is their custom that the Chief does not speak directly to you, but rather to another village elder, who then speaks to you. So, imagine, the Chief speaks to the elder, the elder to the translator, who then speaks to my French translator, who then translates to English. Are you following all this? If not, now you know how I feel!
Another really cool custom in this village is that they greet you twice! First when you arrive, many Bon Jours are exchanged, followed by “the news” and then they greet you again. Awesome!
Good bye! Good bye!
Safer and maybe faster to walk….
Stuck again…. Yes, this photo is staged. It took 13 guys to lift the truck back on to the bridge.
Nabil Zorkot, the photographer that joined us, evaluates the situation.Driving can kill you here. During my 10 days here, the car I have been traveling in has been rear-ended by a taxi and been stuck twice to the point that getting the vehicle back on the road takes significant manual effort and hours to get it back on the road. At the entry and exit of every town and village there is a check point manned by soldiers, police or villagers. The checkpoints have two purposes: safety and profit. $1,000 CFA ($2US) will solve most any problem at a check point. I don’t think there are 10 contiguous kilometers in this country that don’t have at least two huge potholes – the kind that can knock your tire off the rim. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s safer AND faster to walk!
Just outside the village of Meadji, located in the southwest of the country, we made a trip to a remote village to donate some school supplies and some chocolate that my wife and I had purchased. This village was only 16km or 10 miles away. However, we we informed that the roads were bad and it would take us an hour. It took over two hours to get there!
Before embarking on the trip to the school, we met at the cocoa cooperative in Meadji, where the President of the co-op and his board of directors would join us for the trip to the village. Together, we were a convoy of four 4×4 trucks.
These roads were some of the worst roads I’ve ever been on! There were many points when we were submerged to the point that water was trickling in through the doors and other times when there were only three tires on the ground.
There were three bridges we had to cross. These bridges were constructed of two large trees, cut in half and buried in the mud on each side. There was a huge gap in the middle. To navigate the crossing, someone would get out and walk across to the other side to guide the driver across. I didn’t feel comfortable crossing them in small 4×4 pick-ups, let alone the huge trucks that had to transport thousands of pounds of cocoa from the remote farms in the region. On the last bridge, the truck I was in suddenly jerked and slid to the right. In an instant, the driver-side rear tire had slipped off the edge of the log.
After a jack was located from village ahead, I thought we had solved the problem, but not quite. We had to first jack the truck up so the tire was above the level of the log. Then, we had to get 10 strong guys to push the truck over, essentially knocking it off the jack. People must die doing this stuff every day.
Two cocks, yams and peanuts!
You might think this is a partial menu for dinner. Not exactly, not yet anyway. These were the gifts presented to me by cocoa farmers and local village leaders.
The first cock… The first cock was presented to me at the village where I donated the school supplies and chocolate. First, let me tell you about the incredible welcome I received at the village.
After the considerable effort of getting the truck back on the bridge (see previous post), the final stretch of road was up a steep hill. As we came over the hill, the road was lined on both sides by over 200 school children dressed in their uniforms – the boys in khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirts and the girls in nave blue and white polk-a-dotted dresses. They were shouting something, loudly, and clapping rapid clap, completely in unison, with each clap falling neatly together. I asked my friend Siriki to interpret. They were saying, “White man, white man, white man,” over and over.
I was overcome with emotion. I felt like a rock star! They remained neatly in line on both sides of the road as I approached, hands out-stretched wanting to touch me. I graciously touched every hand. Wow!
Next, as is always the custom, we met with the village elders and shared the news. After the news and a drink of water, we presented the school supplies. All 200+ of the children, the village elders squeezed into a class room intended for 50 children. This school had been built for the village by Cargill. Without it, the children would have had to walk 10 miles each way to school. Thank you Cargill!
The custom here is that I presented the supplies to the President of the cocoa cooperative, who then presented them to the Director of the school. Next the candy… The children lined up outside the school, in 7 or eight lines. I brought several bags of small chocolates to give them. They were of course, completely melted after being stuck on the bridge for so long. None the less, the children were still very excited! The organized lines did not last long and a chaos broke out when we threw the candy up in the air. Everyone got to taste chocolate, many for the first time, which still amazes me given that almost all of them are involved in cocoa farming.
After that, I was asked to join the village elders under the shade of a large tree. As is the custom when they are very happy, the presented me with a live rooster! Siriki and I had discussed how to handle these situations beforehand. First of all, it is very rude to refuse any offering from the elders, so one must carefully navigate these matters. So, I accepted the rooster and thanked them. Then I suggested that they might keep the rooster in the village so it could reproduce and there would be many more chickens to enjoy together on the next visit. This got a good laugh from the elders!!! They thanked me for the offer, but insisted that I keep the rooster.
Almost the exact same scenario would happen out our next meeting where I was presented a second rooster after meeting with a cocoa cooperative in the next village.
A similar presentation was made by a local farmer, where he presented me with yams and peanuts. This gift was touched me the most. He had two wives (which is pretty common here) and seven children. If I think about what he gave me compared to his total wealth, it would be like me giving a guest a car and my refrigerator full of food. What an amazingly gracious man.
So, here I am at the hotel, with two live roosters 5kg of yams, a grocery bag full of peanuts. I guess my next task will be finding someone to prepare it!
Update on my final night… My friend and colleague, Siriki Diakite, has come through again!!!! I will be having chicken, yams and peanuts tonight at his house….
The strength and support of women…
Drying the beans after fermentation
Women working on the farm – collecting cocoa pods for opening and fermentation.
In addition to growing vegetables for their families, many women also grow vegetables to take to market, like this one in Assinie.
Toward the end of my trip, I could say hello and introduce myself in French. These lovely ladies appreciated my effort, even with my very strong English accent!
This was a great orange in the Assinie market!!!
I had wonderful shrimp or escrevete in a restaurant in Agboville. These had been “sunbaked” all day in the roadsite market. I decided to sample them only with my camera.
I have had escargot before. They are usually tiny and soaked in butter. These fall into the Jumbo category! I tried them at my friend Siriki Diakite’s house. He is holding one here. They were actually quite good!
Crabs for sale at a roadside market.
The largest escargot I’ve ever seen!!!
I was amazed at the efficiency of the Ivorian women. They carried everything on their heads!Just like every other culture I’ve observed, women are the center of the family unit. When my wife leaves town, I become as helpless as a child… I can’t find anything and would starve if it weren’t for restaurants.
The work ethic of the women here has blown me away. Just like at my house, they start the day by getting up early and preparing breakfast and getting everyone ready. The difference is they have to light charcoal, get water from the well and then they can begin. There is no gas or electric in these villages. After food is prepared and everyone is out of the house, they then head to the fields to tend and harvest the vegetables. Then they gather wood, usually carried on their head, and begin the walk back home. I don’t think it’s uncommon for them to walk over 5km (3 miles) each way every day.
They also play a critical role in cocoa, particularly during the harvest. The farmer cuts hundreds, sometimes thousands of cocoa pods during the season. Guess who picks them up? Ding ding ding. The wife. Many farmers, particularly, Muslims have several wives. I heard of one who had seven. Why? To pick up cocoa pods, of course!
But they do so much more. I was incredibly impressed with a young woman who was the finance manager at one of the cooperatives. She spoke English and had an amazing grasp of the business. She knew all the figures from her head and could clearly articulate all of the successes and challenges of her business. She was responsible for payment to all the farmers and setting up loans for them. She was a women leading powerfully! Yet another woman was Deputy President of her cooperative and also a cocoa farmer herself!
Better farming, Better future
UTZ Certified, Mars and several other companies are truly committed to making a difference in the lives of the farmers here in Côte d’Ivoire. What I have been most impressed with is the approach. Rather than just donating money to the region, they are investing in the farmers. They are providing them with tools and knowledge that help them increase the yields and productivity of their farms. For example, there are farmer field schools, conducted in real cocoa farms, where local farmers can actually see how to take better care of their farms. Some of the techniques include: pruning the trees, removing the weeds that steal nutrients from the cocoa trees and properly utilizing pesticides.Pesticides is a big one. The training on pesticides includes training on using the pesticides that have the least impact on the environment and the importance of wearing protective equipment. Prior to certification programs, many farmers were having their children spray the pesticides without any protection. Now, for the most part, the children are in school and many villages have “spray teams” with special training from the pesticide companies that are responsible for spraying. They wear the proper equipment and dispose of the pesticide containers properly. I have heard of numerous stories where pesticide containers were used to store food and water in the villages. Thankfully, I have not see that at all.UTZ Certified has worked with the supply chain (cocoa buyers – e.g. Cargill and manufactures e.g. Mars) to establish a premium for certified cocoa. Think of it as a bonus with strings attached. The cooperatives and farmers must use the premium to meet the code standards (social programs, pesticide use, minimize environmental impact, etc.). I have heard a lot about the premium because it’s a separate payment and comes outside of the harvest season when the money is flowing. But, in my opinion, what’s really making a difference is the training and investment in the farmers skillset. That is the gift that keeps giving. I have heard several stories of farmers doubling their yield and profits and that makes a bigger difference in their lives than the premium.
The social programs will change the future for these farmers and their families. I have seen schools and health centers that have been built, ambulances purchased to keep women from walking miles to the health center when their water breaks, trucks purchased to help cocoa farmers bring their product to market. And these people are sooo proud that their children are going to school. Simply amazing. I take so much for granted.
I also had the pleasure of seeing the Mars Vision 4 Change project in Soubre. Two big challenges facing the farmers here are diseases and farms that are becoming too old to be productive. People that are much smarter than me are doing genetic research, not to modify the genes, but identify the genetic traits of the best trees and breed those naturally. To help with farms that are 30 years old and older, Mars has developed grafting techniques where you cut a hole in the trunk of the old tree and stick a young branch in the hole that can start bearing fruit in less than a year. Compared with the hard labor of planting new trees it’s much better and farmers can harvest pods from the grafted trees about two years faster than planting a new farm. The farmers involved in the program were very excited about it!
My first night here my hotel reservation was not booked as planned and I spent the first night in a hotel Gant travel, my corporate travel agency, had never heard of and couldn’t recommend. I pushed a chair against the door and barely slept. I was afraid of the unknown. Now, I can’t wait to come back to this incredible country of Côte d’Ivoire!
It’s interesting that people living in America and Europe refer to countries like Côte d’Ivoire as “developing.” It seems to be that in the process of “development” we’ve lost many of the things that are free in life. The ability to smile easily, take the time to always greet people genuinely and to give first, before you seek to receive. I think the essence of life is somewhere in between….
This incredible country has so much to offer. From the miles of sandy nearly deserted sandy beaches to the incredible French cuisine. But most of all, a people with an incredible spirit.
Côte d’Ivoire means Ivory Coast, a literal translation based on the ivory trade that was once so rich here. Now the elephants are all but gone. The forest is disappearing here and malaria is a constant threat. I truly hope, as the country develops, the things that have touched my heart this week don’t vanish with the elephants.
I have had this opportunity because two amazing organizations, UTZ Certified and Mars Chocolate North America believe in making a difference in the lives of cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and around the world. In addition to the millions of dollars these organizations have already invested over the last decade, they have also made a significant investment in me. Words cannot describe my gratitude.
The hole in my soul caused by the boy in Soubre has been healed by the gracious warmth of the people and customs. I have many people to thank for this incredible opportunity. First I have to thank my host, Siriki Diakite. I couldn’t imagine it is possible to grow so close to someone in three weeks. He is like a brother to me. I have to thank my team that was here with me: Herma, Nabil, Ousmann and Mounzer – a gentleman that leaves a lasting impression on everyone he meets. The Mars ambassador program is amazing! Thank you Annette! Thanks to Mike Tolkowsky, Randall Rodriguez, Beth Beasley, Paul Myler and many other Mars associates that increased their workload to allow me to fully immerse in the experience. Thanks to Sandra and Mira-Bai at UTZ for coordinating everything and preparing me for the trip. Thanks to Joost for a wonderful blog platform!
Finally, I have to thank my wife, Sarah Beth, and my sons, Lewis and Grayson for supporting me in this journey.
I will publish more pictures soon. The network here is too slow to upload.
Also read about the experiences of Mars Ambassador Jeanette Ho in Ghana.