Equal Exchange, 02/13/2022
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and thoughts of love, friendship and gratitude permeate the air. Despite persisting pandemic stress, we at Equal Exchange are feeling a depth of gratitude and affection for the myriad relationships that we have cultivated since our early beginnings in the 1980s. We simply can’t say it enough: creating, maintaining, and deepening relationships are the pillars that our organization and our business model are built upon. Weaving together interactions between small farmer cooperatives, trading partners, like-minded businesses, non-profits, religious organizations, and citizen-consumers is both the means and the ends of why we exist.
On this chocolate-focused holiday, it seems fitting to ask Dary Goodrich, Chocolate Products Manager, and Laura Bechard, Chocolate Supply Chain Coordinator, for a recent example that highlights Equal Exchange’s unique model of alternative trade.
Taking our relationships to another level
Early in 2020, we decided to host our first Chocolate Chip Value Chain Summit with representatives of five of our Peruvian small farmer cooperative partners whose cacao goes into our chocolate chips (ACOPAGRO, Oro Verde, APROSAROCH, APANS, and Cacao Aroma de Tocache); the manufacturer who produces the chips; ourselves; and our sister alternative trade cooperative in Canada, La Siembra. Our goal was to get to know each other better. We would share information, strategies, best practices, and lay the ground for new, even stronger, and more creative initiatives in the future.
That was the plan and there was widespread enthusiasm for this new idea. We decided to hold the meeting at the manufacturing facilities in Peru so that we could tour their plant and see together how the co-op’s cacao beans are transformed into chocolate. Planning was underway; tentative dates set; and an agenda was created. And then, of course, everything changed.
How to hold a Summit during a global pandemic?
Peru was hit hard by the pandemic. We were in close contact with our cooperative and manufacturing partners throughout those early months, and the co-ops let us know their concerns. How would the farmers handle the collection and processing of the cacao without adequate PPE? Would they be able to carry out their work while keeping with social distancing protocols? Would the manufacturing plant be able to stay open? What was happening with the various transportation lines that were needed to get the product to us? These questions, and many more, were on our minds.
Months later, we returned to the idea of the summit: Was it fair to ask people to attend? For an organization that has always prided itself on “going the extra mile” to put faces and real people at the forefront of our model, we—like the rest of the world—had to change our practices and shift our plans.
Adapting to the moment
On July 7th, after consulting with the co-ops and the manufacturer, we made the call. There was too much excitement about the idea of coming together to forgo the gathering completely. Instead, we would adapt the agenda—with input from all parties—and hold the meeting virtually.
The virtual Summit took place on October 20th and 21st, 2020. Since this was our first gathering, a good part of day one was dedicated to getting to know each other. Members of each organization shared information about their history, organizational structure, principle work areas, goals, successes and challenges.
We learned about the farming practices of each producer cooperative: how they plant, harvest, and process the cacao. How the co-ops encourage farmers to convert their crops from the highly profitable production of coca to cacao. How the pandemic has made organic production especially difficult, and how each cooperative supports its producer members to continue, despite difficulties. We in turn shared information about the organic market in the U.S. and Canada.
Later, we heard from the manufacturers who gave us a virtual tour of the plant and answered questions about the mechanics of transforming beans into chips. And eventually, we were even able to delve into the social and organizational issues that the farmer co-ops are grappling with.
When we did our final evaluation, it was clear that the virtual summit, though not nearly as satisfying as what we had planned, was nevertheless enormously valuable. According to Pamela Esquivel of ACOPAGRO, “Getting to know the supply chain gave us a much better panorama of all the activities that each actor in the chain carries out.” Her colleague, Wendy Rodríguez Ramírez agreed, “It was so important to hear the experiences of other cooperatives and organizations.”
It was unanimous: we would repeat the Summit in 2021. Hopes were high that we would be able to carry out the original plan and meet at the manufacturing plant. We could invite more farmers and leisurely get to know each other.
Eventually, it became clear that the pandemic would still be with us in October. We wouldn’t be able to meet in person this time either, but there was still value in holding a second virtual summit. This time, since everyone knew each other, we shortened the event to one day and we were able to focus more deeply on specific issues of concern that the cooperatives raised, such as gender equity, leadership development, and employment opportunities for youth.
This coming fall we plan to get together once again. We want to further explore strategies around gender equity and opportunities for youth. We now know that creating opportunities for ongoing group learning will be part of our strategy moving forward. With any luck however, next October the Third Annual Chocolate Chip Value Chain Summit will be held at the manufacturing plant!
A radical approach
Since our founding, Equal Exchange has always invested deeply in time and resources to connect to our farmer partners. Despite language, culture, infrastructure, and access challenges, we have literally gone the extra mile to meet our partners face-to-face. We visit producers; tour their farms and processing centers; learn how they cultivate and care for the land. We talk with them and participate in their co-op meetings: how are they organized and governed? What are their hopes, dreams, worries, and challenges?
The learning is mutual: we share information about who we are; how we are organized; our successes and challenges. We let them know how their products are marketed, sold, and enjoyed in the U.S. We also invite our trading partners to visit us: attend trade shows; participate in our co-op meetings, tour our facilities, visit the stores that sell their products, and talk to consumers.
These exchanges are one of the richest parts of our model and unequivocally what sets us apart from others in the food industry.