The face of Tanzanian farmer Mama Kyeja smiles up from the wrappers of the chocolate bars at Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Mo. The connection between the cacao bean farmer 8,000 miles away and the company is based on good chocolate and good business.
When Shawn Askinosie left a successful law career and founded his bean-to-bar chocolate company in 2006, he set out to make a prize-winning product while helping developing-world farmers and their communities. Today he practices direct trade, meeting face-to-face with farmers to buy their cacao beans at above fair trade prices. And he returns each year to share 10 percent of his profits as well.
“We literally open the books to the farmers, and they see all the expenses and profits,” Mr. Askinosie says. During his payday visits, equal parts celebration and business, Askinosie inspects the new cacao bean crop and discusses any problems with drying and fermenting that might affect the beans’ flavor. He brings chocolate bars packed in dry ice so that the farmers can sample them.
Many of the cacao bean farmers “had never tasted chocolate before we started the tasting parties,” Askinosie says.
Boosting farmers’ incomes is just one nibble of goodness spread by Askinosie, who also shepherds a group of high school students to Tanzania to learn about cocoa agronomy and social entrepreneurship.
Donita Cox, an English and psychology teacher at Springfield’s Central High School, has helped with the project, called Chocolate University, from the start.
“Shawn put the finding of the place [Tanzania] to buy chocolate [beans] into the hands of high school students. He shows great respect for their abilities,” Ms. Cox says. “The students investigated all aspects of the chocolate business and cocoa growing. We needed a country with no child labor, no slavery, and where it would be safe enough to travel with [our] students. He also wanted to find a farmer group led by a woman, which we found.”
In Tanzania and the Philippines, Askinosie and the students set up self-sustaining lunch programs that provide free lunches to about 2,000 students.
In the poverty-stricken Kyela region of southwestern Tanzania, farmers grow high-quality rice, which Askinosie buys. Parents of Mwaya Secondary School students harvest the rice, and students and teachers package it. The rice then hitches a ride with the cacao beans back to Missouri, where Askinosie sells it through his retail and online shops.
Every cent earned is returned to the lunch program.
In Kyela, many students eat only one meal a day so the free school lunches are essential, says Daudi Msseemmaa, who manages the lunch program.
“Shawn loves that the lunch program isn’t aid, but business,” he says. “It’s a model that uses the rice’s high profit margin for the good of 650 students at Mwaya Secondary School.
“Shawn goes all in – he invests his heart and his mind and his business into improving people’s lives here,” he adds.
Askinosie also funded a deepwater well for the village of Tenende, Tanzania, and textbooks, laptops, and generators for the school. Closer to home, Askinosie funded a computer lab at Missouri Hotel, a homeless shelter a block away from his chocolate factory where as many as 80 children live. He had located the business in a run-down area of Springfield so he could serve local needs.
Today more than 800 specialty shops sell Askinosie Chocolate, and it has won multiple awards.
Askinosie is often a guest speaker for groups around the world, sharing the story of his unusual open-book business practices and social responsibility.
“I don’t care what the size of your company is, you can make a difference,” he says. “We’re small, but the community development work we do is life-changing.”
• To learn more, visit www.askinosie.com.