Meet the Woman Helping to Save Us From a Global Chocolate Drought

A public service announcement to chocolate lovers: The world is facing a severe cocoa shortage by the year 2020. A deficit of this magnitude threatens the future of desserts and tasty snacks everywhere. Imagine a life without M&Ms, Snickers, and Dove Bars. Bleak, right?

All kidding and product placement aside (full disclosure: I’ve worked for Mars Global Chocolate since graduating from MIT Sloan School of Management three years ago), this is serious business. The chocolate industry continues to grow, but today’s cocoa farmers don’t have access to the training and tools they need to boost productivity and meet future demand.

These are some of the poorest farmers in the world, and their crop yield, income, and quality of life are in decline. My job as the cocoa sustainability manager for Mars is to develop programs for farmers—many of whom live in remote parts of West Africa and Southeast Asia—to help them make cocoa production a sustainable source of income.

Cocoa beans are an orphan crop. Governments and agricultural companies have not invested in cocoa science, particularly compared to such cash crops as corn, wheat, and soybeans. As a result, there’s been very little modernization of cocoa farming techniques. The vast majority of cocoa growers don’t have a plow; at harvest time, they use a machete.

Securing cocoa’s future starts with helping farmers improve their yields—and consequently, their incomes. Mars’s Sustainable Cocoa Initiative, launched in 2010, gives farmers improved planting materials, fertilizers, and training, which will enable them to produce more cocoa per hectare. For instance, we are establishing networks of rural entrepreneurs who can lead cocoa plant rehabilitation in remote cocoa growing regions. Rehabilitation, which involves using a branch, or “budwood,” of a new tree to restore an old one, produces more fruitful trees.

In Indonesia and West Africa, this kind of support can help farmers triple their yields. This not only boosts the global supply of cocoa, it helps farmers lift their families out of poverty. Our hope is that the children of cocoa farmers will see a future in cocoa farming.

Chocolate sustainability is not the career path of your typical MBA graduate, but I use what I learned at business school every day. Even though I work for a large corporation—Mars is the fifth-biggest private company in the U.S.—the sustainability effort is pioneering new practices all the time.

We are essentially a startup within a big company, and a lot of what we’re doing has never been done before at scale. This means I have to be entrepreneurial. I helped craft a road map that ensures our cocoa sustainability investments are going to the right places. Now I lead the effort to evaluate and monitor our programs and capture insights to make us more effective.

Business school gave me the confidence to lead a diverse team—an area my Sloan professors would call “organizational behavior.” I have had to learn how to navigate the company effectively, how to find advocates within the organization, and how to come up with strategies that help achieve our goals in the most efficient way possible. My job requires that I work closely with geneticists, agronomists, global policy experts, and others with highly technical skills.

Sloan’s network comes in handy. I made some of my best friends at Sloan, and was taught by leading business and economics minds. Whenever I face a stumbling block at work, I draw on MIT-linked organizations ranging from Thrive Labs and Dahlberg to Evidence Action and McKinsey. My friends and colleagues from Sloan invariably help me see problems in a new light.

My work often feels like a tall order, and I know that we won’t see the results in cocoa communities for a few years to come. It’s the small indications that we are making a difference that keep me going. Joel Yao, a cocoa farmer & entrepreneur I met last year in Côte d’Ivoire, e-mails me about his fertilizer sales. He has a lot of customers. And Haji Hasan in Indonesia has achieved over two tons per hectare of cocoa production, effectively tripling his yield in a very short time.

These cocoa farmers help us come up with innovative approaches to farm rehabilitation, and my team is in a unique position to scale their innovations and stem the chocolate shortage.

Shayna Harris is the cocoa sustainability manager for Mars Global Chocolate. She graduated from MIT Sloan in 2011.

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