Blaine DeLuca, supply chain manager for Mars North America, recently contributed his video skills to a unique Mars Ambassador Program assignment that took him along hundreds of miles of dirt trails and into remote towns and villages in Africa’s Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. His goal was to videotape compelling first-person testimonials that would help to expand awareness and support for the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a charitable foundation that works in partnership with Ghanian and Ivorian community and government groups and the chocolate industry to improve labor conditions in West Africa. Over the course of his four-week assignment, DeLuca conducted interviews with local farmers, village leaders and community and government officials that provided a clear and accurate picture of the progress that has been made in this critical cocoa-producing region.
DeLuca, accompanied by an interpreter, a driver and a representative of ICI, conducted more than 50 interviews. “By morning, I might find myself speaking with political leaders,” he said. “Later that day, I would be in the classroom trading quiz question answers for chocolate. In between, I’d speak to chiefs, farmers, schoolmasters, or ICI project partners. The itinerary offered exposure to all levels of society.”
Through the Sustainable Cocoa Initiative, Mars is committed to buying 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020. The company supports the work of ICI and other groups that share Mars commitment to secure cocoa’s future by enabling farmers to increase their yields and, by extension, their incomes. In 2010, Mars signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Minister of Agriculture of Côte D’Ivoire, which allows Mars to work directly with the Ivorian government on productivity projects for farmers. Mars also conducts breakthrough research to improve cocoa breeding, farming methods and protection against pests and disease and invests in the Côte d’Ivoire and other cocoa-sourcing regions to give farmers the knowledge and technology they need to triple their yields.
DeLuca found that one after another, the farmers expressed their appreciation for the data collection methods and improved farming practices introduced by Mars and ICI. After only two years in the program, some farmers reported that they were experiencing a 500% increase in yield. “The testimonies were often tear-jerking,” DeLuca stated. “It’s difficult to face the hardships some of these families have endured. The good news, however, is that each interviewee explicitly mentioned that the quality of life has dramatically improved since the arrival of Mars and ICI.”
One of the biggest success stories DeLuca encountered was a series of schoolhouses built by Mars Vision for Change in 2010. Since completion, enrollment has increased to about 700 children and attendance rates have improved from 75% to over 98%. “In the past, children were forced to walk five miles to school only to then spend hours working on the farm afterwards to combat the poverty,” DeLuca explained. “Now, due to the higher farmer salaries resulting from ICI training and some additional funding by Mars, schoolhouses are being built in closer proximity and communities are actively investing in education.”
DeLuca and his traveling companions were often overwhelmed by the welcoming and open response of the communities they visited. “Many communities would be collected and waiting for us and then explode into song and dance upon our arrival,” he said. In one community, DeLuca was named an honorary village chief. In another village, he was presented with a rooster and a sheep as gifts.
For DeLuca, the interaction with the many children he encountered was a highlight of his travels. One photo captures DeLuca with smiling children climbing onto his back to get into the picture, providing what he described as “such a tangible feeling of comfort, trust and acceptance. Life-changing interactions!”