A Trip of a Lifetime to Tanzania to Study Chocolate at the Source
Yes, the title is a mouthful, but the following post is by Lawren Askinosie (seen above in patterned pants) of Askinosie Chocolate and her company does indeed have a Chocolate University. Years ago her then new company came to my attention as a small player making quality chocolate. Time has shown that Askinosie is here to stay – they have established themselves as a key chocolate producer in the U.S. – they are making amazing chocolates and chocolate products that we love. They also happen to have a very socially conscious approach. When Lawren told me they were about to leave for a trip to Tanzania, I asked her if she would write about the adventure for us. In this Bakepedia exclusive, learn what happens when you attend Chocolate University.
Last week, I returned from the trip of a lifetime: a cocoa origin trip to remote southwestern Tanzania, involving 12 high school students. I was there for my family business, Askinosie Chocolate, for which I am the Sales & Marketing Director; traipsing across the globe to buy cocoa beans direct from small farmers is something integral to our company since my father, Shawn Askinosie, founded it 7 years ago. The students were there as part of our local youth community engagement program we call Chocolate University.
Born of a desire to engage youth in our community and supported by funds from our factory tours and generous donations from across the nation, Chocolate University is an experiential learning program with a global reach for local students. The goal is to inspire students through the lens of artisan chocolate making to be global citizens and embrace the idea that business(es) can solve world problems. We involve neighborhood elementary and middle school students in various capacities, but it’s the local high school students who compete for the opportunity to journey with us to cocoa farms of Tanzania. The application process is rigorous and hundreds of students apply each session for a very limited number of spots.
Taking place every other year, this summer’s trip marks the third Chocolate University origin experience. The students spend a week on a local university campus taking intensive courses on Tanzania culture, Swahili, social business, cacao, and more; then they accompany us on a 10-day cocoa origin trip to Mababu, Tanzania, one of our cocoa origins whose cocoa beans are used to make our 72% Tanzania Dark Chocolate, as well as other products.
As our founder and CEO and also our unofficial “Chief Bean Buyer/Farmer Visitor”, my dad, Shawn, visits each of the farmer groups we work with yearly in Ecuador, Honduras, Tanzania, and the Philippines to inspect beans, worth with farmers on post harvest techniques but also to share profits as part of our unique Direct Trade business model. We translate our financial statements into whatever language the farmers need, explain them, share the cash, then hold a full chocolate tasting, as most of these farmers had never tasted chocolate before they began working with us. These Chocolate University students therefore not only get to witness and participate in international business transaction, they also work with us on various community development projects we’ve initiated.
Here are my 5 favorite moments from our 2014 Chocolate University Tanzania Origin Trip:
1. Our first couple of days in Tanzania we spent at Mwaya Secondary School. Aside from the most energetic and heartwarming greeting imaginable upon our arrival at the school, we met with the PTA to discuss them taking over the Sustainable Lunch Program by 2016 (in which we sell a bag of Premium Kyela Rice, harvested by the Mwaya PTA and return 100% of the profits to fund lunches for all 1,000 students every school day), participated in the vibrant graduation ceremony of 13 young women in the Empowered Girls club we sponsor, and checked in on the success of the Saturday tutoring program for girls that we started recently.
2. We then journeyed to Mababu, where we began our time with a visit to the primary school. The 1,400 students greeted us with singing and dancing and led us to a shady grove where they treated us with more elaborate performances but most importantly, where we gifted them 1,200 textbooks, purchased in Tanzania and provided by Chocolate University donations and a grant from the Southeast Springfield Rotary Club. Prior to our arrival, they had none. The excitement of the students and teachers was palpable and they all couldn’t wait to crack them open and begin learning.
3. Earlier this year, the Mababu farmer group sent us a draft of their 2023 Vision, which Shawn had worked with them on last year. Visioning is the practice of articulating dreams and goals, written in the present but at a future date. During a 2-hour session, we worked with the farmers to polish their Vision and make it “official”. During the session, one farmer was so impassioned while contributing to the discussion that he wept joyful tears. We will never forget it.
4. On what was perhaps our favorite day, our group divided into 3 teams who were assigned to various Mababu farmers and we visited their farms to help them harvest cacao. Chocolate University students had never really done this before and it was endlessly educational and inspirational, because the intimate setting allowed for truly getting to know one another, as well as some good old fashioned hard work. Some groups even had chai with the farmers inside their homes, asking each other questions about daily life and more.
5. On our final night, we hosted a luau for the farmers! Our hotel was located on the beach of Lake Nyasa and the sun set on scenes of students and farmers playing soccer together, the adults passing babies back and forth, and everyone sharing a delicious meal of slow-roasted goat. It was a night to remember.