Interview with Smilja Lambert: Unstoppable Passion for Cocoa

Smilja Lambert is the Cocoa Sustainability Research Manager for the Asia Pacific region. She is responsible for the Mars cocoa sustainability research projects in this region, focusing mainly in Indonesia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Philippines.

Smilja Lambert, Cocoa Sustainability Research Manager

I got a chance to travel with Smilja in early April, and she is probably the idea travel companion you could ever imagine: with thousands of stories, great knowledge about almost everything, and unstoppable passion for cocoa and chocolate. While we traveled in Sulawesi, Smilja shared her secret of keeping her passion in the lovely evening breeze.

Q: Which year did you join Mars?

A: In 1993, I finished my doctor degree in Enzymology/ Biochemistry in France, and my husband and I settled down in Brazil, where I worked as professor on local University. One day I went to the post office. While I was checking my mail, I started to talk with the lady next to me, mentioned about my academic and research background. It turned out that her husband was working for Mars and they were looking for a PhD at that time. The next week I attended the interview and then started working in the Mars Center for Cocoa Science in Brazil.

Q: What was your first job in Mars?

A: When I worked at MCCS, I managed a group doing research programs about analytical characterization of cocoa Germplasm, enzymology of cocoa flavor development, cocoa propagation via tissue culture and bio-control against fungic diseases.

Q: Then how did you move to cocoa sustainability?

AIn 1998, Mars organized the first conference about cocoa sustainability, the Panama Conference. I didn’t attend the conference but I read all the papers. At that time, cocoa sustainability was a very new concept and I was thinking, oh it would be great if one day I could work for cocoa sustainability!

Later, I got a chance to move to Australia. I talked to my line manager and told my manager that I wanted to work for cocoa sustainability but at that time there wasn’t a position for that. I was responsible for analysis of cocoa flavanols. It was very different from working in MCCS, because in Brazil I worked with 7 technologists but here in Australia, I need to do all the research labwork by myself.

While working in Australia, I attended conferences on cocoa research, and gradually built the network collaborating with many research institutes. At the end of 2000, the University of Melbourne and Mars started a program of testing farmer selected clones in Indonesia with funding from Australia Government. And in the following years we started more programs in Indonesia on clonal selections and especially in pest and disease management. Based on the research and results, we have developed a few good new cocoa clones and also the cocoa rehabilitation package for farmers that wanted to increase their cocoa production.

Since I moved to Australia, my work evolved from lab research to field research, and eventually linked to cocoa sustainability. Sometimes I feel that it was my dream of working on cocoa sustainability that leads me to where I am today, creating this job position which didn’t exist in the past.

Q: What are you working on right now?

ARight now my team is specially focusing on the starting up of a Mars Indonesian breeding program in the frame of the Mars Regional Cocoa Centre that we are developing in Tarengge, South Sulawesi. This breeding program addresses the specific regional issues in the search of better planting materials for cocoa farmers, better integrated pest/disease management and improved soil management. We have already started the breeding program by producing hand pollinated crosses between the best cocoa clones that we have selected in farmers fields during the last 10 years of field screening. The team has been doing amazing work and has progressed really fast. We have already planted over 14,000 hybrid plants in the field, with more 21,000 to be planted by the end of this year. These superior planting materials and other new technology will be distributed to farmers through the Mars Cocoa Development Centre.

Additionally, there’s another program about fostering and organizing the Asia/Pac INGENIC regional cocoa breeders group to share the best regional hybrids and select among them for the best new generation superior clones. The group was set up in 2004 and all regional cocoa research institutions are involved in this group (Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Papua New Guinea). The exchange of the regional best genetic materials between the participating countries is a unique in the cocoa research world. In the Mars Regional Cocoa Centre, we also allocated an area that will become the regional collection of the best clones that were issued from this regional genetic exchange. Next June, the first clone budwood will be introduced for this collection. 

Q: could you tell us a typical day of your work?

A: Half of my time I am traveling. If going up country, I usually spend at least a week there, to work with the local team, usually in the cocoa field in Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Sometimes I also visit plantation, fermentation station and quality centers, and sometimes I need to attend some conferences, to provide a scientific point of view and learn about new research results, as well as drive research collaboration.

Q: What challenge you the most in your work?

A: (laugh) Maybe I should say work life balance. The challenge for me is that once I start working I can barely stop, even when come back home my mind is sill spinning around thinking about work. Usually I need to force myself to have some break, for instance, to prune some cocoa trees in my farm during the weekends.

Q: You have a cocoa farm? Could you tell us more about your farm?

A: Well, we live in Cairns, Australia, where we have planted 55 cocoa trees, just for my hobby. The farm is quite far from our home so we only go there on weekends or holidays. Last year we harvested 1223 cocoa pods, with register of each tree on number of produced pods, to be able to make my own clonal selections. We fermented those beans, roasted and grinded, and made our own chocolate and shared with family and friends. Working in the cocoa farm allows me to take some time for myself. And it also helps me understand cocoa farmer’s life better.

Q: Does your family support your work?

A: Yes, they have been very supportive and that really means a lot to me. My husband has a background in agronomy so he understands what I am doing, and he supports me as a husband as well as my agronomy consultant and the only worker on the farm besides myself. I have learned a lot from him and he is really enjoying our cocoa adventures. He’s very good at managing our cocoa farm, where we are trying to manage using environmentally friendly methods. For example, we use green ants for bio-control of a very destructive insect pest. To keep the ants in our farm, we feed them with ham and making rope bridges between the cocoa trees. Cocoa is a real fun as a profession and as a hobby! Everything is complicated but very charming.

I have just accepted an assignment to Sulawesi and we are moving to Indonesia in the first week of June.

Q: What motivate you to work every day?

A: The curiosity of learning and discovering new things, which might also benefit millions of cocoa farmers.

Q: What makes you proud of?

A: Being able to working on things that will benefit others. I always feel proud to work for Mars. Mars provides me a unique opportunity to work on what interest me, allows me to spend time in the field making relevant research that would finally help cocoa farmers to produce more cocoa, increase their incomes and on the other hand, made cocoa production more sustainable and assure supply of cocoa beans for Mars Chocolate business. I feel very grateful to working for such a good company.

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