How can we design partnerships for change in the cacao-chocolate community?

Facilitating action-research partnerships to bring research, ideas, and community together

How might academic research better serve the needs of the specialty cacao and craft chocolate community? The FCCI-UC Davis research team emerged from the desire to facilitate action-oriented research to address this question. This blog post summarizes our process of research design and invites your participation in the next phase of collaboration.

Shared vision
To start, we’d like to explain our own position as researchers. We were drawn to this work because of the correspondence in values between what we and the craft chocolate and specialty cacao community hold dear. Our individual values stem from our backgrounds of having worked with farmers and seeing the potential for specialty markets to develop more equitable models for the supply chain. In particular, we saw how the craft chocolate movement brings into focus ethics, quality, and community.

Our goals in working together were to align academic research with industry issues and needs and to engage the cacao-chocolate community to make real action-research partnerships. The three phases of this journey have been Identification of core research areas, Matching of industry-academic alignment, and Planning for action, each detailed below.

Identification of core research areas: The first task was to get a sense of where industry needs and academic research currently stand. Ryan and Madeline led a brainstorming session at the 2016 Chocolate Makers’ UnConference in Seattle, asking: In what areas would you like to see more academic research? The six main themes that emerged from this conversation were: Impact and Transparency Reporting, Pricing, Genetics and Cultivation, Flavor and Taste, Chocolate Manufacturing, and Health and Physiology. We used these themes as the basis for the information-sharing part of the survey. We also listened to core themes from the UnConference and generated a list of skills that could facilitate this information sharing. These included language skills, business skills, teaching and education, and technical skills.

We wanted to see whether these themes resonated with the chocolate community at large, so we partnered with FCCI to gather more perspectives surrounding those six themes. Together, we became the UC Davis-FCCI research team and spent the next many months designing two surveys, one for industry and one for academics. (There is certainly overlap between these two categories. People in industry may also do research and academics may have projects with considerable industry cross-over.) The people targeted for the industry survey included chocolate makers and cacao farmers, retailers, service providers, and others who consider cacao and chocolate their profession. The academic survey targeted academics — people who are regularly teaching, publishing, or writing about cacao and chocolate — to see who is doing what research.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. We received 235 completed responses from the industry survey and 164 responses from the academic survey. (The responses included those who had completed at least 50% of the survey questions.) Considering the size of the fine chocolate and specialty cacao market, and the relatively small number of academics working on cacao and chocolate, we think the participation rates are a big step in the direction toward collaboration.

Matching of industry-academic alignment: Each survey had a specific set of questions for people in academia or industry, along with an embedded set of identical skill-sharing and information-sharing questions. Figure 1 shows an example.

Figure 1: Skill-sharing questions asking whether people sought assistance or could consult in the areas of teaching/education, business skills, technical skills, and language translation.

Next, we brought together the data from the industry and academic surveys. We coded open-ended responses on academic research according to alignment with the six topics from the industry survey. If someone’s research aligned 100%, we assigned it a 1-point score for that topic, and is the research aligned only somewhat, we assigned a 0.5-point score, and repeated this for each topic. This alignment is shown in Figure 2. This suggests considerable interest in the work of the academics doing this research, and the possibilities for further alignment and collaboration on these themes.

Figure 2: Industry interests and academic research alignment for the six themes. The green lines indicate that Genetics and Cultivation and Flavor and Taste were the top areas of interest. The blue lines indicate the number of academic researchers doing work on each of the six themes.

For the skill-sharing questions, we grouped respondents from both surveys together and looked at the number of people willing to share a skill and the number of people in need of assistance. Figure 3 shows that there are more people willing to assist than people in need of assistance, or simply put, the supply outnumbers the demand.

Figure 3: Grouped responses of skill-sharing from the industry and academic surveys. “Willing to assist” includes those who can offer pro bono or fee-for-service. “In need of assistance” includes those willing to pay or in need of a volunteer.

Planning for Action: Focused on the six themes, we led sessions at the 2017 UnConference and Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle and the 2018 Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) Elevate Chocolate event in San Francisco. You can view our presentation and the slides from these events here (presentation, slides).

In Seattle, people broke into teams based on their interest in one of the six themes and brainstormed burning questions and their vision of collaboration. Each team identified a champion to lead the next steps, shared contact information, and decided on the team’s next meeting date, time, and venue. Our next step is to schedule calls to understand what resources those champions need.

Now, we invite your participation to advance the next phases of planning and action. Our commitment to the chocolate community is to facilitate academic-research partnerships by linking up research needs with resources. This began with identifying core topic areas and people in industry and academia who are willing to collaborate. We then created research teams, identified champions, and have shared lists of contact information. Beyond this, we would love feedback from the community on what resources you need for this collaboration to thrive.

We’ve come up with a few ideas for collaboration and are open to your suggestions. Please answer a few quick questions below.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post! We will reach out again soon.

Who’s Who

Dr. Carla D. Martin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) 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 work at the FCCI focuses on identifying, developing, and promoting fine cacao and chocolate, primarily by addressing ethics and quality issues in the value chain. Find her online here and here.

Dr. Ryan Galt is a broadly-educated geographer whose teaching and research interests are centered on the relationship between society, agriculture, food, and the environment. He holds the position as the MacArthur Foundation Endowed Chair in Global Conservation with an Emphasis on Sustainable Development for a project entitled “Just chocolate? Impacts of ethical cacao-chocolate commodity chains on biodiversity conservation, crop genetic diversity, and livelihoods.” Find him online here.

Madeline Weeks is a PhD student in Geography at the University of California Davis studying specialty cacao and craft chocolate. Her broad research areas include social and economic impact, ethics and gender equity, and community-based development. She has worked at origin in Belize, Guatemala, and Vietnam and stays engaged in the online community. Find her online here.