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The Middlemen

Tanzanian cocoa growers have long been at the mercy of itinerant buyers paying low prices despite the steep costs of growing. But a well-meaning company has created a supply chain that’s better for the farmers—and makes for better chocolate.

Hilary Heuler ​

Sarah Maglass lives in a new red-brick house in Tanzania’s fertile Kilombero Valley, just south of Udzungwa National Park, nearly 40 miles from the nearest electricity or paved road. In her village, Mbingu, there is one dirt road and a tangled network of sandy footpaths that snake between rice paddies, mudwalled houses, and stands of leathery banana trees. Maglass is a farmer, like nearly everyone here. She cultivates patches of blushing pink pineapples and rows of corn, but it’s her 5-acre cocoa plantation that makes the real money.

Once every two weeks during the six-month harvest period between June and December, Maglass wends her way through her 1,500 trees, ducking the low-slung branches to hack firm, ovular pods from their trunks. Unlike the carefully controlled monocultures of other cocoa regions, the diversity of Tanzania’s trees means that the region produces fruits of different shapes, sizes, and textures, with colors ranging from dark brown to bright pink to acid green. The cocoa beans—also known as cacao—that will become chocolate, each roughly the size of a quarter, are packed inside the colorful shells, surrounded by a delicious creamy white pulp. It tastes intensely fruity, sweet, and tropical—nothing at all like chocolate as we know it.

The global chocolate industry is worth more than $100 billion, but most cocoa farmers around the world are poor. “Cocoa farmers are underpaid for the work they do,” says Greg D’Alesandre, a buyer for San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate, an uncompromising producer of single-origin bars, including from Tanzania. Global cocoa prices today are lower than they were 40 years ago, and many younger farmers are avoiding the crop altogether. But in Mbingu, a small cocoa-processing company called Kokoa Kamili shows a new model can work better for farmers and lead to better-tasting chocolate.

Founders Simran Bindra and Brian LoBue have identified a weak link in the local chocolate supply chain: Growers here have long been at the mercy of njemke, local middlemen, who pass through the farms at unpredictable intervals, use unregulated scales to weigh the beans, and pay as little as possible for the crop. Njemke won’t buy fresh, perishable cocoa, so farmers must ferment and dry their beans themselves. Big commodity traders pay njemke for quantity alone, so farmers are happy to sell them unripe or rotten beans along with the rest.

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