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Interview with Theo’s Supply Chain Impact Manager on her trip to Peru

Interview with Theo’s Supply Chain Impact Manager on her trip to Peru

Posted by Theo Chocolate on May 25th 2017

On May 24, 2017, Theo’s supply chain impact manager, Emily Benson, will be traveling to Peru to connect with cocoa suppliers and assess the damage from recent flooding in the area. Emily answered a few questions regarding the purpose of the trip and why she is compelled to this type of work.

What is the purpose for this trip to Peru?

The purpose is twofold –Theo visits each of our cocoa origins – Peru and the DRC – at least once a year to check in on quality improvements, provide technical training as needed, maintain relationships with the co-ops like Norandino in Peru and with farmers who are members of the co-op. We also check on the impact our business is having in the communities where we source our cocoa beans. It provides us with an important opportunity to hear feedback from farmers as well.

However, the timing of this specific trip, goes beyond our typical annual trip because of the recent and devastating flooding in Piura. Because of the flooding, I will assess the situation to determine the appropriate role for Theo to best support the community as it recovers from the floods. The region where Theo sources received 400 times last year’s annual rain fall in just a few days.

Immediately after the floods, the Peruvian government installed emergency centers and refugee housing for those most affected by the recent natural disasters. Because of the severity of the impact where Theo works, two of those centers were put up there. Roads were washed away and there wasn’t infrastructure to drain rain water in these areas. It will be important to see what is happening now, two months out, what the government is stepping in to execute and on what timeline, and what the communities we source from see as the most pressing needs.

What all will this trip entail?

The trip will have two main components. First, I’ll be attending and speaking at Norandino’s annual Fair Trade meeting. This is where the representatives of all the different communities come together, make decisions, review the past year, and plan for the year ahead. I will also be meeting with farmers during this time. At the end, there is a party to celebrate the year together.

The second component entails a few days of field visits where I’ll spend time in the various communities where we source cocoa. I’ll meet with farmers, assess the damage from the floods and listen to their concerns. I’ll also be observing and asking about social impact indicators such as physical evidence of change in the communities including infrastructure and housing materials, along with qualitative evidence through personal stories, meetings with groups of farmers and my instincts about an interaction.

Why is this trip important to you?

“I’ve always been inspired by an innate desire to help people. This drive led me to Theo Chocolate, a company that shared my desire, not only to help people, but to also do business in a way that 1) doesn’t cause more harm than good, and 2) can actually reverse past harm.”

Being able to travel to Peru and the DRC reminds me of the reason I do what I do. It pulls me away from the cubicle and computer screen and confronts me with a reality we all understand, but can sometimes fail to internalize – what we do matters. The decisions we make at our desks every day aren’t in a vacuum. They affect people, and more precisely, these very people. I’m lucky to work at a place where such impacts drive the way we do business.

What is your personal relationship with these farmers? What is their relationship with Theo?

I joined the Theo team one year ago and have already had an opportunity to spend time with the farmers in our Peruvian supply chain on a prior visit. The farmers I meet with, are all part of the Norandino cooperative, so they grow cacao on their personal farms and then work collectively as part of Norandino to process it and prepare it for export. There are a few people I really connected with on that trip.

During our meeting with the group of farmers who lived in the town, I asked about fermentation – an important part of the cocoa harvesting process. The farmers around me deferred to a young man as their fermentation expert and he stood up to answer my question. He explained that his father had been the expert but he had passed away a month prior, thus making him the expert. His voice broke as he talked. As we were getting ready to leave, I asked to use a restroom and was directed to a nearby house. It turned out it was the young man’s home and I noticed that the dog belonged to him as well. The family home had parrots, cats, and dogs all of which very sweet and cared for. The young man and I bonded over his animals and talked about his plan to stay in the community. He felt it was where he belonged, even though most his friends had abandoned rural life for the city, and the only place that felt like home. He told me again about his father and became emotional again. It was a really meaningful interaction, and one that serves as a daily reminder of all of the wonderful people we are connected to through our sourcing decisions.

I have also been able to have some insightful conversations with women that I met throughout different communities. It’s always a balance – you’re coming in for just a few hours and wanting to know all this personal information like what their kids eat and if they’re involved in household decision making. For me, it’s so important to take the time to get to know them, which can be hard when you’re going to so many communities a day and meeting dozens of people.

You mention the importance of connecting with women on your sourcing trips. Can you tell us about that?

In general, it’s important to me to build connections with the farmers from whom we source. By hearing about the work they do, I’m able to better understand the obstacles and challenges they are faced with – both big and small – while being able to hopefully provide resources and solutions to some of those challenges. These conversations are a big reason for these trips in the first place.

In both Peru and DRC, women do a lot of the farming while also managing the daily activities of their households. If I want to understand whether things are getting better or what challenges may exist in their day-to-day lives, women are the ones who know! Beyond that, I find that as a woman, the women I meet with have a much easier time sharing with me than they do with a male representative of the company.

When I’m meeting with farmer groups, I’ll ask a woman a question, and almost always, a male farmer will answer me. I’ll joke around that I want to hear from the women but I’ve found that they tend to be rather quiet in these situations.

I once asked a woman in a group of community leaders what about how her journey enabled her to become a leader in her community. A man started to answer and I jokingly chided him, “you are not a woman leader in this group, you can’t have a journey that led you to it, just wait!” Another male farmer protested “Juan is the expert on women’s issues!!!” Not only did everyone appreciate the humor of the situation but it gave the women a platform to answer the questions. I really value that conversation and was moved by the input from these women.

It can be a tough dynamic as it’s tempting to infuse my own values into the conversation, but I also work hard to not alienate all the men in the room. Humor has been a great tool to address these issues. One thing I like to share is how my husband does a lot of the cooking in my house, which is usually received by “oohs and aahs.”

What commitments has Theo made to flood relief efforts?

Theo donated emergency funds to Norandino when the flooding first began to meet immediate needs such as medical care and water. We are exploring an additional commitment that would support longer-term rebuilding in the area. Before we can determine what that commitment would look like, we need to better understand the situation on the ground. The hope is that this trip will provide context and enable us to determine appropriate next steps.