From the Ground Up Change Accelerator: Collaborative Trade
Impact Hub Berkeley’s “From the Ground Up” is a four part, year-long program that brings together multi-stakeholder organizations working in sustainable food and agriculture to collaborate on joint initiatives. The change accelerator combines dynamic innovation salons, public-facing education programs, and community building events to drive systemic change in the following areas: (1) Collaborative Trade, (2) Living Oceans, (3) Local Food Systems, (4) Health Soil/Carbon Farming.
Session 1: Building Trust
Collaborative Trade is fundamentally about people, and providing opportunities for each person to help create systems that work better for everyone involved. The topic for first two salon sessions focuses on “the farmer, buyer and intermediary relationship.”
In session 1 we explored the theme “building trust.” The room was filled with 13 leaders from the sustainable cacao industry along with organizations working to improve the lives of small-scale farmers (participant list below). Everyone came together to share their voice and co-design clear next steps for improving supply chain trust and transparency. The experience felt a little like “making chocolate.” We curated the best “ingredients” and blended the “notes” (voices) and “flavors” (perspectives) according to the conditions and desired outcomes presented.
Yellow Seed engages community directly in the decision-making process. We believe individual voices coming together accelerates learning and allows the Collaborative Trade movement to grow. We documented the conversation here, highlighting stories and experience shared, so you can join the collective learning process throughout the series.
The 3.5 hour session included introductions and a brief PPT overview, co-creative topic development, topic-led discussion and synopsis and action-step design. We began by exploring incentives around trust, information needs from each stakeholder, and channels to share that information and provide feedback to inform decisions. The main discussion was a weaving of shared experience, ideas, emergent questions and “a-ha’s”.
As the group explored individual needs, motivations and preferences, it became clear that ‘no one-size fits all.’ For example, each buyer in the room desired different criteria and information from producers and had different stories to tell their customers based on organizational values and experience. As an emphasis on efficiency and scale of production shifts toward an appreciation of product diversity and quality — that also honors worker skill and the land —we realize we are looking at a very dynamic model. A model that is built on a network of trust, includes a transparent framework for governance and exchange, and has the ability to evolve and innovate based on new information.
For a more detailed summary, see “Building Trust in Our Food Relationships” by Lawrence Nussbaum.
Thank you for your participation and the opportunity to pilot Collaborative Trade with us.
Co-creative topic development
After introductions, we took 20 minutes to co-design the session. We reviewed the original discussion prompts and asked “what’s alive for you” and “what would you like to surface” over the next few hours related to building trust. After brainstorm and synthesis, the stage for session 1 was set around the following four themes:
(1) What do we actually need to know? As buyers, farmers and intermediaries?
(2) What are the motivations, incentives or needs of different stakeholders? For example, why would anyone tell stories that are untrue? And how do we better understand bias and cultural perspectives?
(3) What are the ways to surface voices and challenges? How do we give farms and people at origin a voice?
(4) What does a system for education look like? How do we better understand awareness levels, disseminate information that is useful, create metrics or levels of trust and design channels for validation and feedback?
So, where do we begin?
“I’d like to start with ‘What do you need to know?’ Are we talking about growing practices, social issues, labor?” asked Catherine Campbell, from Marker Campbell Consulting, Inc. advising large food brands on scaleable sustainability initiatives. Greg D’Alesandre, “Chocolate Sourcerer” for Dandelion Chocolate chimed in to clarify the motivations of the question. “Do you mean, what do you need to know or what do you want to know?” Catherine added, “Do we start with coop or farmer? There are different questions depending on who you are talking about.”
Diving deeper into criteria needed for the information, different needs surfaced depending on the motivations of each stakeholder. Starting with the buyer, we discovered that each buyer in the room had different sourcing criteria. “For me, experience on the ground matters,” says Jonas Ketterle from Firefly Chocolate. “I don’t really need to say ‘this percentage of forest cover does this’ rather, by visiting the origin and meeting the farmer I can decide what points to emphasize in story and how I communicate to my customers.” Karin Gregg, the cocoa product sourcing manager at Clif Bar & Company, inquires, “How are you telling your story?” Clif Bar has to take into account the scale and diversity of customers to which they communicate. “Clif Bar is constantly being contested to define what is ‘fair’ or ‘good.’” For example, she noted that some customers still do not really understand the value of ‘organic.’
Lawrence Nussbaum, Collaborative Trade Fellow for this series and a sustainability consultant with experience in certification programs, notes that “certification often serves as a proxy for relationships.” He notes that while certification has been a successful tool that uses the power of the marketplace to influence practices, “it is generally geared toward larger companies and uses a check box approach that doesn’t always serve to benefit farmers or necessarily encourage innovation.” In the introduction round, there was a shared interest to find ways to go beyond certification to indicate unique value embedded in products.
And how do you account for cultural differences or bias? For example, Greg spoke of a sourcing relationship with an origin he had never met, noting that both trips to meet with this origin producer were canceled due to disease risk in the country. “Every time I talk to him, what he feels like he needs to be doing is to reassure me that everything is ok. However, what I want is information. I don’t care about reassurance. I’m not anxious, nervous or worried. I just want to understand what are they doing in terms of quality improvement? It’s a cultural thing. For him, the way you do business is to reassure. It’s like we speak different languages.” He reflects that often cultural differences can be addressed after meeting face to face.
Laura Kowler, a consultant for Solidaridad Network brings up the idea of a “truth indicator” and shares her experience navigating cultural differences in Peru and Bolivia. After asking questions of people working cooperatives or other conservation organizations she noticed the first response was always “Yes, yes, yes.” Over time she learned the hard lesson that this indicated motivation rather than what to expect.
Justin Polgar, founder of Yes CaCao notes the interchange of “truth and trust” in the conversation. He suggests trust is based on what is happening with us, rather than in someone else. Trust of someone is reflected in his expectations of “that person to be them, based on what they have shown me.” Understanding a person’s motivations and where they are coming from helps him calibrate his personal “trust tolerance.”
And this trust calibration is two-way. “How do people we are working with trust us?” Greg asks, shifting the conversation to thinking about how farmers and producers access information and how incentives available inform the decisions they make.
Justin Polgar relates this question to his experience in Ecuador, a country once renowned for cultivation of fine-flavored native varietals of cacao, now faces a shift towards CCN-51, a genetically modified monoculture crop. “I was driving for three hours and all I saw was hectares and hectares and hectares of the same type of cacao. I wondered, what’s really going on here? So, my friend down there contacted a place growing CCN-51 and asked ‘where he could buy some and what was needed in order to grow it?’ The man replied, ‘see these liquids? (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) If you buy these products from us, then we’ll give you the plant starts [for free.] And you’ll have pods in two years. Everything will be great!’ So for a farmer who has someone tell him how to make a living, offering him a free product to do so, it must have been surprising for someone else to come in a few years later, from a Western culture and tell him the things he was told was not necessarily true.” Greg adds, “In fairness, if I were a farmer in Ecuador, I would grow CCN-51. It grows 3x as much, it’s disease resistant, it’s super hardy. Does it taste good? No, it’s not great, but it’s not awful. But the real question is “Are [speciality buyers] paying 3x market price for cacao now? Most people are not. Dandelion pays 2-2.5x. But 3x is a lot, so if you’re a farmer and you’re like, ‘I could grow 3x as much cacao for that much more money,’ it becomes a financial decision.”
Catherine plants the topic, “Can we map an education delivery system?” Karin begins the discussion with “Where do the growers themselves get information?” Greg shares his experience, “It’s usually from the other farmers.” Karin notes that that technical assistance is sometimes paid for through governmental grants and NGO’s in the case of coffee, but other crops may not have information available. “For example, what I’m finding in my work is no one knows how to grow an organic macadamia nut.” And disseminating that information on the ground requires someone to have the skills to transfer that knowledge. Laura adds, so what we are talking about are services for dissemination and training? Greg adds, “we are also talking about how you decide what to grow and how to ferment or process it?”
Greg adds, “I think it’s important to help people understand that cacao is not a commodity. It has been treated as a commodity for hundreds of years and farmers now can give you metrics of how it is fermented and grown but when you ask ‘how does it taste’ they don’t understand that question because they are used to selling it like a commodity. So there is this challenge of helping people understand commodity cacao and craft chocolate cacao are two different products that are treated separately. Nothing we buy is based on the world market price, but 99% of the market is.”
Justin adds “Yes, this is a terminology question. Like on the website we had to figure out, ‘how do we tell what we are doing without writing a book here.’” Greg laughs, “It’s true. The chocolate industry has been optimized around for years, namely ‘flat chocolatey flavor,’ that has few off flavors as possible, and as much volume as possible and as large of seeds as possible. But it’s changing and a surprising number of farmers email us to ask what to grow and why? We try our best to guide them by telling them what their choices are and outcomes might be for selection of type of cacao. For example ‘if you grow CCN-51 you’ll sell to commodities and if you grow Nacional you will sell to fine flavor people and here are the pros and cons to each.’ However, we also warn that we are only four years old, so there’s a lot we are learning.”
“There is an enormous lack of information [for producers] out there of what to do,” Greg suggests pointing to the need to create sources of education that farmers and producers can use to make informed decisions. He shares his experience while in Colombia. “They were building a totally new fermentation center and there were like 14 things wrong with it,” reflecting on how he might have supported the process if he had known. “Where do farmers get information such as how to build a state of the art fermentation center building? It does not exist. And how do they choose whether to plant CCN-51 or Nacional? The farmer often only has information from the guy next door trying to sell him CCN-51 clones or Nacional clones.”
Jonas also suggests how much knowledge does exist from producers on the ground. “I went to one farm and saw this man taking cuttings from a leaf cutter ant pile to inoculate the different trees because he has been an organic farmer all his life. He is bringing beneficial bacterial to the trees and cacao farmers to spread to the forest. Later I asked people at the coop if they knew about this practice and they didn’t. The information is not flowing back.”
The group agreed for the need to create a system for cross-cultural and two-way communication and learning, as there are things that farmers know best and buyers know best. Justin prompts “how can you bring a conversation alive so that people can pick out what is important and meaningful to them?” Megan Vose, from El Motete Marketplace reflects on her Peace Corps experience in cacao farms in Panama and adds, “So as far as educating farmers, it’s also important to figure out what they know as well, and acknowledge the 100 years of growing a crop and from their community members. It doesn’t have to be education coming from one side, it can be collaborative knowledge that makes sense for them and the chocolate buyer/maker. If producers feel like their voice is important and they have valuable information, then it is a shared relationship/partnership. That’s how I’ve seen it be mildly successful.
In summary, there is a desire for a collaborative framework that enables trust to be built. As we shift from optimization around productivity and efficiency into a system that values quality, skilled labor and the land from which products are grown, we realize we are looking at a dynamic model to incorporate the diversity of preferences, needs and resources from each stakeholder.
So now what? What are the opportunities for innovation?
The group began to reflect on solutions which sparked new questions. Themes of building a trust network to enable access to relevant information and greater collaboration surfaced. “You might recommend a farmer to a friend based on connections he has with other organizations and a network of trusted friends” Karin suggested. And it was mentioned that specialty craft buyers often can’t afford to buy a container alone, due to their scale. However, if they were part of a trusted group, they could source together. And Karin added “so on the farmer level, it’s knowing where your future is. It is volume in the end. Thus buyers should agree upon the structure of what you’re buying or how much.” Greg lights up in agreement, “Yes, right now we are working with five other chocolate makers to buy a cocoa-making co-op. Most chocolate makers are so small compared to industry players, that if we are fighting each other, we might as well give up. Also there is growing demand.” Karin clarifies, “So you guys want to stand together? To create that larger market? So more growers can grow what you want to have grown?” Greg says “yes exactly. Rising tides lift all boats.”
Collaborative work requires an understanding of values, preferences and merit. Brent Willett, of Regenerative Foods and Cocoa Logos brought it back to education and tossed up a metaphor. “I was just joking to Justin, instead of OkCupid, it’s like “OK-Cacao, the cacao dating network.” As far as the producers, how do you bring in more of a sense of cooperation. For example, how do buyers ‘pay it forward?’ in a way that minimizes risk for producers. And what if a resource-valued, cooperative trust network could provide sense of metrics, education and evaluation by linking what the farmers and fellow producers are saying and by tracking what they are actually doing?” Laura chimes in about the need for governance, “Yes, farmer and buyer accountability are essential to the discussion and this also requires a shared understanding of the product on all sides. Is there a way to get a board to craft preferences and come up with those standards?” Jonas adds, “And to transparently share that by saying this is how we purchase and the price we pay.” Brian Wallace from Endorfin Foods challenges, “And how do we support an unbiased standard or system? For example, if you have the same beans but want different ferments, how do we know which is better and who decides that?” Megan agrees, “I think groups will have to come together and decide, ‘this is our standard.’”
Jonas suggests, “For cacao there is no quality standards, rather there is a suite of options, i.e. ‘here is a fermentation set up, here are 3 different rates, styles you can do’ and depending on the buyer, you might want to follow these guidelines.” Justin adds, “Language or terminology of preferences, especially flavor, first needs to be determined.” Not only does everyone have different preferences but also perspectives. For example, he offers, “it’s like asking someone ‘do you eat healthy?’ And you hear, ‘Sure I eat low fat,’ or ‘I’m a raw vegan chef.’” Greg agrees, “Yes, that’s part of the reason we are forming this co-op. If six of us are buying cacao together then at least six of us can agree and that’s a start.”
I conclude this session by saying “So this is the process of making chocolate! We’ve made a really beautiful pot!” And someone laughs, “We haven’t even talked about sugar!” …To be continued.
The group shared closing reflections which included the recognition of the need for a collaborative and transparent system to truly value the diversity of interests involved and respond to shared concerns. And two people noted that building a resourced-based and dynamic network requires financial resources and organization to manage the collective project.
Yellow Seed Summary
A trust map
The following data reflects a summary of information surfaced. I’ve draw a rough sketch to gather feedback and see how these visual maps change over the course of the accelerator.
What information does each stakeholder need to know?
- What do I grow?
- How to grow it?
- Who will buy it?
- How much will they pay?
- Are the buyer’s committed to purchase and for how long?
- Is the product consistent?
- Does it taste good?
- Is the supply of product sustainable?
- Who says? What certifications does it have or is the information coming from sources I trust?
- Are farmers treated fairly?
- Is the land and environmental impact considered?
- Does it taste good?
- What is the mission of the company or producer I am purchasing the product?
- Is the farmer and everyone along the way being paid fairly and equitably?
- Who says and how can I trust the information?
What are the components to creating a dynamic and scalable system?
- Market information: Buyer preferences, standards, demand volume, prices
- Shared understanding of values of business or operation
- Communication guidelines to create safety and clarity
- Market resources
- Tools and channels of connection to disseminate information via a trust network
What information is needed to build trust in a collaborative group?
- What is the criteria for products at origin?
- What are the characteristics and values of origin producers that you would like to develop a relationship with?
- What are the characteristics, values of people you want to collaborate with? On a shipment of a container or another project?
And couldn’t resist…
Session 1 Participants:
- Summer Allen, International Food Policy Research Institute
- Galen Berkowitz, Cacao Bahia/ Pantek Partners – remote
- Greg D’Alesandre, Dandelion Chocolate
- Catherine Campbell, Marker Campbell Consulting, Inc.
- Karin Gregg, Clif Bar
- Jay Holecek, Origence, & Trade partner of Nova Chocolate, EcoCacao Co-op
- Jonas Ketterle, Firefly Chocolate
- Laura Kowler, Solidaridad
- Lawrence Nussbaum, Collaborative Trade Fellow, From the Ground Up
- Justin Polgar, Yes CaCao
- Brian Wallace, Endorfin Foods
- Brent Willett, Regenerative Foods and Cocoa Logos
- Megan Vose, El Motete Marketplace and California Farm Link
Session 2: Story and Transparency
Session 2 on February 8th focuses on story and transparency. Questions that emerged from session 1 and from the original session design include:
- What does story mean? What is important for you to know when purchasing a product? What is important for you to share when selling a product?
- What level of transparency is critical for sustainable supply chains to function effectively?
- How might we build safe and effective feedback loops between buyers and sellers? And without damaging reputation publicly? What are systems of mutual- accountability? What is the role of certifications?
- How do you tell a story that is constantly evolving? What are the channels for how story is shared? Is there a way to reinvent the space of where the story is told? Especially to customers as there is only so much space on packaging?
Thank you for lending your voice.
Thank you for your participation and the opportunity to pilot Collaborative Trade with us.