Category Archives: Mars Ambassador Program

A new perspective on sustainability and certified products

MARS Ambassador Jeanette Ho visits Ghana for a first-hand experience of UTZ certified co-ops and farmers, partner organizations, auditors and schools

My name is Jeannette Ho and I’m a Global Product Development Scientist at Mars, Inc. I recently participated in the Mars Ambassador Program (MAP) and I’d like to share some of my experiences and thoughts.

Each year Mars, Inc. sponsors associates to participate in partnerships with organizations that have shared missions. Both Mars and UTZ play important roles in cocoa sustainability and thus the Mars Ambassador Program is an opportunity to collaborate in making a greater impact.

My project focused on the methods and role of data collection in certification.

Mars_ambassador_2014-002Why would a Product Development Scientist work on sustainability and data collection you might ask? Well I work in the chocolate industry and I help to make products sold all around the world. Since my role is not directly involved with sourcing, I thought it would be good to understand where our raw materials come from and what sustainability really means.

I was interested to take part in the Mars Ambassador Program with UTZ Certified because, as a scientist, I have a passion for efficiency solutions. As a consumer and world citizen I have a passion for sustainable practices that affect people, the environment and our economy.

At the end of my trip, I can definitely say the experience has given me a new perspective on sustainability and certified products.

The first week I spent meeting with people from various functions at UTZ. I soon realized that running a global certification program was more complex than I would have thought.

Mars_ambassador_2014-001My second week on assignment I flew to Accra, Ghana to meet up with UTZ’s field representative Kwame Osei. While in Ghana, we visited UTZ certified co-ops and farmers, partner organizations, auditors and even a couple schools. Some of the groups were smaller entities, and others much larger.

During the visits I noticed the similarities and differences amongst the operations, and delved into understanding how and why these differences existed. There were challenges and opportunities for efficiency and continuous improvement in the field, and I shared this with the UTZ team upon my return. Some groups were pioneering new methods of data collection and others were championing methods I felt could be applied more broadly in the field. I made note of my observations, existing infrastructure and management systems, and personal recommendations on ways to collect and use data to improve certification impact for the future. The Ghana field visit was but a glimpse at the opportunities that lie ahead for the future of cocoa farming and certification.

Overall the days were long, the roads quite bumpy, and the everyday quite different from life in New Jersey. I found most people in Ghana to be very friendly, and curious as to why I was so far from home and what I thought of their country. When would I be back, they asked? I hadn’t yet seen all the sites like Cape Coast, Labadi Beach, or Lake Volta! I also met some inspiring people along the way, and it reinforced the idea that the world is becoming smaller and that the opportunity to improve is very real if we make the efforts.

The MAP experience made me realize there was more to sustainability than just the idea of it. It takes people, organization and real efforts to make changes meaningful and I am glad to see Mars and UTZ Certified working together towards this important goal.

Watch Chris’s experiences

Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s biggest cocoa producer, where many thousands of families depend on cocoa farming for their livelihoods. As part of the Mars Ambassador program, Chris Cuello visited this beautiful country to meet some of these farmers and see for himself the benefits of UTZ certification. Watch and hear his impressions of this and find out about grafting a farming technique that is helping farmers to boost productivity in the country.

Closing remarks

Cooperative ECASO in Ivory Coast

This picture epitomizes my Cote d’Ivoire trip… Beautiful, happy children welcoming me and enjoying chocolate – some for the first time.

Cooperative ECASO  in SoubrŽ

I tried to do my part to help… This is a 70kg (150lb) bag of cocoa. The guys at the cooperative gave me a round of applause. What was really impressive is that there were guys half my size doing this all day long!

Petit BouakŽ , Ivory Coast

One of many shade tree talks in a village, in this caase Petit Bouak. Now we are just drinking water – earlier we had palm oil alcohol.

UTZ Round Trip Ivory Coast

This is most of the crew (from left to right) Nabil Zorkot, photographer, Chris Cuello (author), Siriki Diakite (UTZ field representative for West Africa) and Herma Hulst (Director of Communications for UTZ, based in Amsterdam). Not pictured are Mounzer (Nabil’s assistant) and Oussman (driver).

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.

À bientôt!

Better farming, Better future

Fofana Danon and family

The first farmer I met was Fofana Danon. Outside Agboville, I had the pleasure of walking around his farm and meeting his family!

Fofana Danon in the field

Fofana at work on his farm – harvesting mature cocoa pods. The machete is the cocoa farmer’s primary tool, used for a wide range of tasks from pruning dead branches to killing snakes.

Cinpa farmers in Agboville

One of my most memorable farmer conversations was with SAWADOGO Adama. He is 80 years old and has been farming cocoa for over half his life. Two of his sons are also cocoa farmers, including Moussa, who is the President of the local cocoa cooperative in Agboville.

 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!

The strength and support of women…

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While walking to the waterfalls in Soubre, we came across a family that was fishing. The had caught many fish, including this big “Captain fish”

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.
Assinie market
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!
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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!

Two cocks, yams and peanuts!

After our trip to the school, the first rooster doing what roosters do... "roosting"

After our trip to the school, the first rooster doing what roosters do… “roosting”

I packed everything I could think of for my trip.... I thought I was prepared for any situation.  However, a chicken coop was not on my checklist!
I packed everything I could think of for my trip…. I thought I was prepared for any situation. However, a chicken coop was not on my checklist!
Somehow the roosters escaped from the cardboard box on our four hour ride from San Pedro to Abidjan.
Bad Roosters!!!! Somehow the roosters escaped from the cardboard box on our four hour ride from San Pedro to Abidjan.
I was honored to have KOUASSI Kouame, President of COOPAGA (a cooperative near San Pedro) present me with a rooster after our meeting. COOPAGA is the first UTZ Certified cocoa cooperative in Cote d’Ivoire. They have used their premium to build a school, health center and to purchase an ambulance.
Rooster for dinner
They say “all good things must come to an end,” as was the case for the two roosters. They lived a good free range lifestyle. Tasty!!!

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….

Safer and maybe faster to walk….

It took us almost 6 hours to drive 20km!

The roads here are trecherous! It took us almost 6 hours to drive 20km (12 miles)!

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Stuck again…. Yes, this photo is staged. It took 13 guys to lift the truck back on to the bridge.
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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.