The Chocolate Bookshelf: Obroni (Steven Wallace)

There’s something you need to know about me to understand what I’m going to say about this book. From my teenage years through the middle of university, I was sure I wanted to be a diplomat. To that end, I took a lot of classes (and did a lot of reading, both for class, and because it was interesting) about international relations, global trade relationships, and how the distribution of power affects people’s everyday experiences. I have friends who’ve gone on to work for the United Nations, Medecins Sans Frontieres, micro-credit lending, and international development work, and have spent hours listening to them talk about their experiences.

One of the things I’ve learned from all that is that the production of a lot of the “luxury” foods consumed in the wealthy Western world (coffee, chocolate, pineapple, sugar, etc.) is fundamentally linked to histories of colonialism. There’s lots of evidence that the production of chocolate exploits agricultural workers, including the indentured servitude of children who have never tasted chocolate. In many cases, the people producing chocolate make a lot of money for large companies and eke out a difficult and precarious existence for themselves. Beyond the human cost, cultivating these crops can prompt deforestation, habitat destruction, and environmental damage. (Incidentally, this is why so many of the chocolate experts who supply Coffret’s chocolate see environmentally sustainable, fair trade cocoa and chocolate as a minimum standard – because they’re trying to produce something delicious that you can eat without feeling like you’re exploiting another human being. Many of them intentionally set out to build relationships with the farmers who grow the cocoa they use, and work with them to ensure both the production of stellar chocolate, and that growing cocoa helps build and reinforce healthy communities.)  

While there are volumes coming to this blog under the “Chocolate Bookshelf” series that address those aspects of conventional chocolate production (including Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate and Kristy Lissele’s Cocoa), Obroni is something different. It doesn’t deny the difficulties of managing chocolate production across international borders – most of the book is about having to deal with hundreds of challenges in order to establish a factory in Ghana to produce fine chocolate for the market in the United States and Europe. But, throughout, there’s a clear sense that Wallace’s goal in building such a factory is to create something that produces delicious chocolate and genuinely benefits Ghana and it’s people. The company is more than two decades old, and offers a reminder that it is possible to “do well by doing good.”

There was a lot here that was reminiscent of my preparation for a diplomatic career I never embarked on. Much of the building of Steven Wallace’s company, Omahene, hinges on personal relationships, and finding just the right person to ask to do something or help with something. It’s one of the things you learn if you study policy long enough, that there’s a huge difference between the policy, as it exists on paper, and the policy, as it is enacted by real people on the ground. It was interesting to follow the process of trying to find the “right person” to help navigate the Ghanaian and US bureaucracies at a personal level. This is not, by any means, a how-to book for establishing a generic chocolate factory in a cocoa-growing region, it’s an up-close and personal story of how THIS chocolate factory was established in THIS cocoa-growing region.

I’ve been told that a large part of the experience of reading a book is what you, as a reader, bring to the book. Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of details about packaging and chocolate supply for Coffret, so when Wallace writes about the frustration of receiving fine chocolate melted in the package because it was shipped in a cello-taped cardboard box instead of his specially designed insulated shipping container, it resonated for me. I’m in the process of trying to figure out how much insulated bubble wrap etc. is needed to keep chocolate from getting damaged as it is shipped across the country in the summer. There are so many details of getting supply agreements put together to get chocolate into customers’ hands (and, generally, I don’t even have to deal with customs and international borders), and I really appreciated knowing that I was not the only one who struggled with these things, especially in the attempt to do things in a way that both provided a good experience for customers and benefits producers. Plus, it was good to read about someone who is as…obsessive is perhaps the word… about packaging details as I am, especially in a week where I think I’ve sent 6 emails back and forth with the graphic designer to try to get our boxes exactly right before they go out to customers.

Obroni is not an academic or technical volume – if you’re looking to learn about particular pieces of machinery in the production of chocolate, or the get a comprehensive overview of the geo-politics of chocolate, or Ghana, for that matter, this is not the book for you. It is, however, a look at the personal side of the production of chocolate, with an emphasis on the possibility for positive international trade relationships. It’s not a difficult read, although it is more about the business of chocolate that the eating of chocolate – there isn’t much about the flavor subtleties of chocolate. Wallace points out that one of the advantages of producing fine chocolate in Ghana, rather than in factories in Europe or North America, is freshness (you don’t need to ship cocoa beans halfway around the world before you make them into chocolate), I’m not sure I have a clear sense of what that freshness would actually MEAN in terms of flavor for chocolate. I suppose my only recourse is to go ahead and order some of their chocolate and try it for myself.

Anastasia KulpaComment