FCCI Cacao Academy concept note: Collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training by FCCI Senior Advisor Alyssa Jade McDonald-Baertl, in collaboration with Executive Director Carla D. Martin, PhD. To follow along with development of the FCCI Cacao Academy project, please join our weekly livestream conversations broadcast via Facebook and subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.

The Challenge

farmer training is often communicated in industry media and conferences, as
well as in company communications as large projects that aim to ‘help’ farmers.
Despite many claims and millions of dollars investment in farmer training,
smallholder yields and living standards have not significantly improved for
cocoa farmers around the world. There is a gap between market communications
about cocoa farmer training and proof of effectiveness.

In 2019 an evidence assessment examined the effectiveness of
cocoa farmer training (knowledge transfer and new practice adoption) and what
multifactorial impacts; household health, wealth, farm ecology and productivity
exist. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses
framework  (1)
(PRISMA) and the QATSDD (2) were used to review the
quantitative and qualitative research on to identify effectiveness of cocoa farmer
training from 2014-2019 were searched and independently reviewed for selection,
extraction, and results from West Africa, Oceania and South America. From a
base of over 700, 53 studies were identified and analyzed and found that there
is little reliable evidence that current cocoa farmer training is effective
regarding knowledge transfer and new practice adoption.

Regarding evidence of training
methods; modality of training (e.g. farmer field school or traveling teacher)
and length of training, organisations involved, and content was under reported.
It has not been possible to benchmark or assess these aspects in cocoa farmer
training.  It was clear though, that the
largest barrier to farmers implementing new practices was access to financial
resources, inputs and materials. Knowledge transfer, in the case of cocoa
farmer training, is not the only measure of effectiveness without
implementation for impact.

There is
also significant evidence of multifactorial impacts from farming household
health, wealth and ecology occurring concurrently on productivity.
and food security (access, availability, nutrition) followed by chemical safety
and water/sanitation were key impediments to farmer’s ability to live well, and
thus work well. Living wage in terms of positive contributions from either farm
diversity (plant species and revenue stream) and farmer professionalism were
highlighted as key factors regarding farmer wealth, while productivity in the
research focused on challenges with plant pest and disease control, land
management and professional farming practices. Currently, there are barely any
training programs which cover this broad range of topics.

The Complexity

Due to COVID-19, social distancing has meant that farmer training in field schools and cooperatives have functionally stopped. An FCCI poll found that, of 159 responding cocoa production and trade operations, 80% were limiting gatherings of large groups of people, 74% were limiting non-essential visits and travel, 70% were changing in-person meetings to virtual where possible, and 67% were rescheduling or cancelling events or meetings/trainings. Respondents also reported an acute need to continue training for public health purposes: 86% were educating workers about hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette and 50% were changing processes to reduce risk of exposure.

While the case is severe currently, disruption to agricultural extension support and training occurs regularly due to natural environmental disaster, political upheaval or some other community or family challenge. Relying on market-driven (donations from chocolate companies), certification-driven, or government supplied training is not reliable for fundamental productivity and livelihood skills that rural and remote farmers need. This is true for the 4+ million farmers around the world.

The opportunity

exist for effective knowledge transfer and new practice adoption:

  • Simple skills transfer easily: Simple skills are effectively transferred through peer-learning (3), farmers learn from other farmers (4) (5) and personal engagement increases knowledge in low-resource agri-locations (6). One of the big reasons farmer’s don’t follow through with new knowledge or innovations is that they lack the resources to implement (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18)  (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25), so the knowledge needs to be mapped to the situation and capacity
  • Self-directed learning is effective: Farmers choose their own learning topic (26) (e.g. a menu of training ideas) and then write their own action plan based on the new practice (27) (28) and understand it in the context of their own land / situation (29)
  • Motivation is vital: Farmers need to believe the training will help them (30) and receive follow up information / reminders (31) (10). Encouraging farmers to learn a new idea, and take a ‘experimental approach’ to trying it out was also more effective than just ‘learn and do’ (32) (33) (34) so the skillset of designing an experiment and testing a hypothesis was part of the training to understand the logic around crafting curiosity around new practices
  • Connecting with all farmers: Training places have been offered to name-holders on land titles, or ‘heads of families’; however more members of an extended family can benefit from multifactorial training such as women and young adults (16).  When women are invited to participate in farmer training, there are barriers to preventing them from being able to attend the whole training, due to home-duties which are often prioritised over their learning (15) (20). Besides women being a potentially beneficial target group, late teens and young adults can benefit from more accessible training in cacao farming to both involve them in the local business, or start upskilling for succession management. Thus offering training to a ‘household’ could benefit more than the primary farmer.

Digital communications suggests an
opportunity to leverage farmer connection, inherent skill sets in certain
regions and a peer-led learning platform. Indeed, the UN FAO initiated investigation
into digital farmer field schools in December 2019 (87) as a potential avenue
to explore.

  • Information sharing among farmers with radio and
    cell phones could be leveraged for spreading new ideas (or farming practices) (17),
    and also supporting related-skills sets such as health (35)
  • Wageningen study goes here. (36)
  • Farmers who receive training
    have said they like topics that are directly relevant to them, and have a
    greater volume of sessions and follow up / refreshment training and reminders
    via simple reading materials, or posters with key messages (37). With digital tools, such repeatability and reinforcement of key
    learning objectives and methods can be easily scaled.

The idea

Collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training:

  • Diversity of topics: Digital methods enable a
    huge variety of topics to be delivered, and does not rely on the existence of
    specialist knowledge in a certain area. If cacao farming is directly impacted
    by a variety of health, wealth, environmental and productivity-related
    challenges, then a platform needs to be as diverse as their needs.
  • Better metrics: Digital tools enable
    benchmarking before a learning program begins, so true assessment of needs and
    wants are identified, before a potential curriculum is decided. This should be
    participatory, involving farmers themselves who share knowledge of their
    challenges, participate in the identification of potential solutions, and
    choose for themselves which intervention to learn and try.


Information overload can cause burnout of learning (13) (15), the relationship of new information to traditional wisdom (38) can sometimes conflict and the negative influence of colleagues and peers (39) can also be destructive. Digital training methods could leave out farmers who do not have access due to media literacy or finances to access digital tools; thus encouraging receiving farmers to diffuse the knowledge within their community would be key.


Carla D. Martin, PhD, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Carla is a social anthropologist whose current research focuses on ethics, quality, and politics in cacao and chocolate and draws on several years of domestic and international ethnographic experience. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Transition Magazine, Social Dynamics, The Root, 25 Magazine, US History Scene, Sodade Magazine, Socio.hu, and edited volumes. She lectures widely and has taught extensively in African and African American Studies, critical food studies, social anthropology, and ethnomusicology, and has received numerous awards in recognition of excellence in teaching and research, including The Harvard Crimson’s Professor of the Year. Since 2016, she has co-led the training of over 500 specialty cacao and chocolate industry professionals in 14 different countries through FCCI’s Cacao Grader Intensive course. Find her online at LinkedIn and @carladmartin.

Alyssa Jade McDonald-Baertl is a third generation farmer from Papua New Guinea, who built a German social enterprise in Ecuador in 2009 to farm cacao and produce chocolate bars for Europe. While the tree to table worked, it became very clear to her that the world didn’t need another chocolate bar, but rather contributions at the most vulnerable aspect of chocolate, farmer households. The organization evolved into cacao.academy: a social enterprise providing education on cacao farmer training, and building nurseries and field schools in Philippines and Papua New Guinea. In 2018, she began post-graduate environmental science research at the University of Sydney, Australia, in the area of effectiveness of cacao farmer training, and multifactorial impacts of farmer health, wealth and productivity. She lives in Europe, and when not working in cacao, writes close to market strategy for the European Commission on sustainable finance and eco-innovation. Her purpose is to influence positive systemic change from the fields to financing. She is board member of the German Federation of Green Economy, The European Commission Business and Biodiversity Board, and the Greenpeace Australia Pacific GA. Find her online atLinkedIn and @LyssLand.

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Gift ideas for the fine cacao and chocolate lover 2016

Wondering what to gift the serious chocophile in your life? Here are 10 ideas for the holiday season.

FCCI Calendar 2017: Chocolate Makers of North America
The cover of our 2017 calendar, featuring Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate in Denver, Colorado.

1. The Gift of Time(-Tracking)

Our Chocolate Makers of North America 2017 calendar — the result of chocolatier and photographer Maya Schoop-Rutten's year of travel and exploration — includes photos of individuals from twelve North American chocolate makers in the spaces where they work. It also highlights some of the many global events supporting fine cacao and chocolate. Thanks to the generosity of Maya and all the chocolate makers involved, proceeds from the calendar will support FCCI.

If you'd prefer an edible calendar, it's still not too late to order Dandelion Chocolate's impressive, confection-filled Advent Calendar.

Cost: $20 for the paper calendar; $85 for the chocolate one. Plus shipping.

2. Hot Chocolate Making Kit

Perhaps the most satisfying hot chocolate is made at home on the stovetop by melting fine chocolate into water or milk (or cream!). A hot chocolate making kit could include some or all of the following:

Cost: Choose your own adventure.

3. Historical Chocolate Artifacts

If you enjoy the thrill of the search, there is a world of fun to be had in finding historical chocolate artifacts like vintage advertisements, antique chocolate pots and serving sets, or rare books on cacao and chocolate. Online, start with Ebay, Etsy, and Google to get the lay of the land. Offline, try antique shops, flea markets, rare or used book stores, and estate auctions. (Some keywords to get you started with servingware — “mancerina,” “trembleuse,” or “moustache cup” — all historical vessels for drinking chocolate.) Rest assured that a historical chocolate artifact is a gift to be remembered.

Cost: From pennies to thousands of dollars.

4. Books

Every fine chocolate lover needs to read at least two books: Maricel Presilla's The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes and Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe's The True History of Chocolate. Beyond that, one could read for years and never come close to finishing the literature on chocolate.

Cost: Usually between $10 to $30 each.

5. Education

The Ecole Chocolate Professional School of Chocolate Arts offers a variety of courses. For chocolate enthusiasts in particular, their Chocolate Flavor 101 is a 4-week online class in learning how to taste consciously. Taught by talented chocolatier Richard Tango-Lowy.

Cost: $55 + the cost of a book and chocolate to taste.

6. Award-Winning Chocolate

The Academy of Chocolate, Good Food Awards, and International Chocolate Awards all provide starting points for exploring fine chocolate. Each awards program has different criteria and judging protocol if you want to get geeky and explore the variety. Let your chocolate giftees judge the products for themselves by providing a sampling of the finalists or winners. Beyond this, the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund certifies growers of high quality, flavor cacao; companies working with this cacao produce bars, which can be located for purchasing here.

Cost: It's up to you.

7. Chocolate Subscription

Purchasing a subscription or Community Supported Chocolate share provides a consumer with great perks: access to rare or special edition chocolate, a steady supply of bars, and often inside scoops on the biz or educational materials. It also provides growing small businesses with a measure of community financial support as they do their work. The fine chocolate market offers several options right now, e.g. French Broad Chocolate, Lonohana Chocolate, Madre Chocolate, Rogue Chocolatier, Somerville Chocolate, Videri Chocolate.

Cost: Variable.

8. Chocolate Money

Exploring the world of fine chocolate requires financial investment; a gift certificate to an excellent chocolate shop will help your giftee take their chocolate love to the next level. Below are links to a few of the best-stocked North American specialty chocolate shops offering gift certificates. You can't go wrong with any of these, though we also strongly recommend supporting local specialty shops in your area:

Cost: Ranges from $25 to $500.

9. Cocoa Pods

Cocoa pods make for interesting home decor conversation pieces. The Cocoa Pod shop currently sells whole dried cocoa pods and open empty dried cocoa pods collected directly from cocoa growers in Ecuador.

Cost: $19.95 each + shipping.

10. Good Works

Last but certainly not least, there are a number of organizations involved in non-profit, philanthropic and/or academic pursuits in the name of fine cacao and chocolate. A donation in the name of your giftee will foster their ability to continue this work. Here are a few that we admire:

  • Equal Exchange, in collaboration with Cooperative Development Foundation, is raising funds to support Ecuador earthquake relief toward concrete goals. Donations will directly support repairs to the property of cacao farmer organizations Fortaleza del Valle and UOPROCAE.
  • The Cocoa Research Centre at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine offers an adopt a cocoa tree/plot program to support the invaluable International Cocoa Genebank Trinidad.
  • The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund seeks donations to support their work in preserving fine cacao varieties.
  • Donations to Yellow Seed can provide more small cacao farmers visibility and access to markets for their products.

Cost: It's up to you.


Welcome to the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute website!

The FCCI is a nonprofit organization devoted to identifying, developing, and promoting fine cacao and chocolate. We do this by providing high quality educational programming, conducting rigorous, in-depth research, and fostering targeted community-building. Fundamental to our mission is our work to address ethical and quality issues in the fine cacao-chocolate supply chain.

Our organization was founded in 2015 by Carla D. Martin, PhD, a social anthropologist and lecturer at Harvard University. As the Executive Director of the FCCI, she is supported by a diverse team of experts, including board members Kathryn E. Sampeck, Chloe Doutre Roussel, Peter Giuliano, and Christina Xu. Additional collaborators hail from the fine cacao and chocolate industry, academia, and the highly engaged consumer base.

We invite you to learn more about the FCCI and its activities by visiting other pages of our site:

We encourage you to contact us at any time to share ideas or constructive feedback. Thank you for joining us as we take these first steps toward our big goals.