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Saturday, April 06, 2019

Bundibugyo-origin wonders, or, where does chocolate come from?

fermenting cocoa beans
When we moved to Uganda in 1993, this district's main cash crop was coffee, and one of our team's goals was to enable fair trade for the small scale coffee farmers by a co-op transport to more central markets, freeing them from the vagaries of beholdeness to middle men. That plan ended tragically in a fatal accident involving the transport truck, soon followed by war disrupting all trade in the area, soon followed by a coffee blight disease that wiped out most of the crop. The silver lining in all that sorrow: Bundibugyo switched wholesale from coffee to cocoa.  Over the last 20 years, much of the agricultural land in this valley has been planted in cocoa trees. It turns out that we are in the sweet spot for chocolate: within 10 degrees of the equator, in a tropical rainforest, humid, low elevation.

Cocoa grows on trees, trees that were indigenous to central and south America but now dominate in West Africa and the South Pacific.  East Africa with its high dry savannas has relatively little cocoa production. But it turns out that the very climate that kills Bundibugyo with malaria and sickle cell disease makes us perfect for chocolate.  You can see the green oblong cocoa pods angling out from the tree trunk above. This is the fruit of the tree, which is picked and split open to remove the beans or seeds, surrounded by a white pulp.
the pods left after removing all the pulpy beans
And here is where Semuliki Forest Chocolate, produced by Latitude Trade Company, comes in. This is a new fair-trade cocoa export company that has moved into Bundibugyo. For nearly two decades, farmers have been harvesting their beans, drying them on tarps on the ground, and selling them to large-scale exporters. Jeff, Justine, and Max met working on fair-trade cotton in Kitgum. Two of them are American entrepreneurs and one is a Ugandan agriculturalist. They want to provide consistent fair prices, right at the peripheral small-scale farm, to produce a higher quality single-origin chocolate.

the normal trade, not Latitude

Justine offered to show us around the Latitude site, and so Stephanie Carrigan planned an RMS field trip and invited interested team to tag along Friday morning.  We drove up to Bundibugyo town where the fermenting and drying plant has been established.
Latitude buys from farmers around the district four times a month, though in most places harvesting cocoa is only permitted on set days twice a month. This is to make it more difficult to steal the cocoa off the trees . . yes, in a desperately poor area, a cash crop can be pulled right off the trees at night or when no one is watching, so the government and community decided to limit harvest to the 14th and 29th of the month (Latitude has negotiated 7th and 21rst in some areas as well). This also lessens the days kids miss school to help. Unlike the larger companies based in Kampala, Latitude buys the wet beans fresh on the day of picking, pulp and all.  On those days, they send trucks to various collection points and pay farmers cash on the spot.

The beans are heaped into two-compartment wooden boxes, packed down tight and tucked in with banana leaves and burlap. Natural yeasts in the air begin the fermentation process, which continues with naturally occurring bacteria.  About every day or two for a week, the beans are moved from one side of the box to the other to aerate them. The mass becomes hot as fermentation progresses, creating an acidic environment that chemically matures the beans. 

When Max determines the fermentation is complete, the beans are moved to long screen-based tables under transparent tarps. Bundibugyo sun provides plenty of heat for the drying process, which continues for another week.

The beans are raked and turned, moved from one rack to another, sorted to remove debris. Besides the many farmers who grow and sell the cocoa, a dozen or so people are employed to do this hefting and spreading of the cocoa beans.
At last, about two weeks post-harvest, the beans are poured into burlap bags where they sit another week or two in a warehouse breathing or settling or something that evens the flavors. The final step involves sealing them in green plastic bags and then putting the sealed pack into another burlap bag with the Semuliki Forest label. Here they will wait to be transported to Kampala, loaded into a container that goes to Mombasa, to a ship, to Amsterdam, to the world.

Legend on our team is that the first missionary from our organization to move here (who lived in tents with his family until housing was built) did not allow the team to bring chocolate bars here, lest they inadvertently corrupt the culture with outside ways. Now this district is a producer of chocolate. Ironies abound . . though most people who farm cocoa have still never tasted the final product. Getting a chocolate bar out of dried beans is no small task.  Latitude produces some on a relatively small scale in Kampala, sort of a side business to promote their major income generation from exporting the beans. Actual bean-to-bar processes involve a need for continuous electricity, roasting, milling, mixing, pressure, ingredients, refrigeration . . things that would be difficult here.
Still, many years ago a certain missionary kid did a "Bean to Bar" science project and basically did this entire growing/picking/fermenting/drying/roasting/hulling/milling/mixing process from his own tree to a taste of chocolate right here in our home. We have long dreamed of a fairer trade, justice for Bundibugyo.  Is Latitude the answer? Maybe it's a start. 

Single-origin chocolate can sound like a stuffy millennial gimmick, a way to make more profit. Fair-trade, on the other hand, can sound like a generous and sacrificial redress of wrongs, an attempt to primarily benefit poor people across the world.  The truth lies somewhere in between. Being a consumer that is willing to pay $8 or $10 instead of $1.50 for a really nice bar of chocolate from a specific region where real people farm sustainably . . well, that's a good thing.  It transfers some value to the point of origin, it reminds us all that quality costs, and it encourages small tastes and enjoyment rather than mass consumption. It also discourages the kind of massive forest-destroying single-crop conglomerate-agribusiness whose economy of scale sacrifices sustainability and quality for cheap prices and huge sales.  However, it does not automatically turn Bundibugyo into paradise. The prices paid to the farmers are still low; they still see only a tiny fraction of that profit. Fair-trade businesses have a bottom line of making money, not social welfare, though of course they believe they are doing both. Cocoa production has displaced food production in the district, turning us into a net importer of food. Cash for school fees benefits children; lack of kitchen gardens however exacerbates a chronic problem with malnutrition. The cocoa profits can bring life, or can fuel evil. In short it's a complex equation with potential for good, but the good comes in a mixed bag. 

Cocoa is here to stay. Latitude Trade Company chocolate is really really delicious, it has an earthy nutty flavor of the land from which it grows. You can look for "Semuliki Forest Chocolate" in other brands, since 90% of the beans ship to Europe, America, or Asia to artisanal chocolatiers. And there is a South African company doing a similar single-origin bar. And if you really LOVE chocolate, agriculture, justice, and Bundibugyo, maybe you should move here with Serge! We would love to be advocates for the farmers, balancing the profit-motivated companies with the hunger-motivated kids.

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