What I learned in Indonesia: Marketers must be a part of the “bean to bar” process

As a marketer, I consider myself a storyteller. At my job at Mars, I get to tell the exciting stories behind some of the world’s most iconic chocolate brands such as M&M’S®, SNICKERS®, TWIX® and DOVE®, usually around the launch of a new product or a new advertising or marketing campaign. But the story behind these beloved brands that often doesn’t get told is how these products are made.

Making chocolate is a robust and meticulous process that begins far beyond the store shelves and even beyond our factory floors. The process actually starts in the soil in farming communities in Africa, South America and Asia. I recently had the privilege to go deep into this process, stepping away from the storytellers I typically spend my days with, and spent several days with the “storydoers” — the cocoa farmers of Indonesia, the world’s third largest cocoa producer.

Why would I trade our office in New Jersey for a trip to farms on the Indonesian countryside? As a marketing professional, it’s absolutely imperative to understand not only the “marketing” behind a product, but also the “making.” My week-long journey to better understand and be involved in the “bean to bar” process and get to know the people, challenges, innovation and collaboration that are ensuring chocolate’s place for generations to come was not only moving and inspirational, but also extremely insightful for a chocolate professional.

Why Indonesia?

While my career has taken me all over the world to live in places like Spain, Russia, France, and the United Arab Emirates, I never expected I would find myself traveling through the upcountry in Indonesia amid lush trees, palm dates and rural roads as part of my job.

Visiting one of Mars’ Indonesian sites

In Indonesia, and around the world, Mars focuses on creating economic value through creating societal value — to give back more than we take. Our vision for cocoa is to transform traditional cocoa farming to sustainable cocoa farming, which requires an integrated and interdependent approach with social, environmental and economic impact. We invest in Indonesia because the country provides the right conditions to support sustainable cocoa development. At Mars, we believe in sustainability through productivity. By improving the yield and product we enable the income and improved livelihood of the cocoa farmers as well as reduce land use and impact on the environment. We have found the key to success starts with the farmers.

Meeting an amazing cocoa farmer at a buying station

Mars helps improve the lives of farmers in the region by providing education and access to sustainable agriculture practices in a variety of ways. Mars owns five cocoa development centers and two cocoa buying stations where we share best practices with farmers and train Cocoa Doctors by showing them what is possible when sustainable farming practices are adapted. Mars also supports the development of over 110 independent cocoa village centers in Indonesia and are expanding our outreach throughout the country. I was able to visit some of these centers on my recent trip, and see firsthand how Mars promotes healthy business practices and healthy communities in this region.

Learning about cocoa pods

Creating a Sweeter Future for Farming Communities

Mars partners with farmers in Indonesia to not only build their expertise, but also empower them to share their knowledge and best practices with others. One aspect of this work is focused on the training and development of Cocoa Doctors. Cocoa Doctors are trained by Mars Associates in the Cocoa Academy for seven intensive weeks on modern and sustainable farming tactics, as well as coached and supported by Mars to create, promote and sustain a business in the community. Once trained, Cocoa Doctors are given the latest planting and tree materials from Mars and return to their village to run their own small businesses and cocoa villages that allow them to educate and sell modern farming materials to local farmers.

I shadowed Cocoa Doctor Pak Hasman on my trip to better understand this process, and to say I was in awe of him is an understatement. We visited a farmer only to discover the acidity of his soil was off and it was effecting his crop. Pak was able to swiftly work with the farmer to address the problem and propose a plan with proper compost to bring the soil back to the right nutrition level by using higher quality fertilizers, teaching the farmer how to identify the issue and find a relevant short term solution. Pak also promised to plan a follow up visit and bring new planting materials for the trees to provide a more adequate long term solution. This experience was priceless for the farmer, as it will now allow him to create a higher yield and healthier and more sustainable crops in the future.

Pak Hasma, the Cocoa Doctor I had the privilege to shadow

Spending time at a variety of cocoa farms on this trip allowed me to see the level of involvement of the entire community in the cocoa farming process. The farmers, Cocoa Doctors and community members form strong partnerships with each other. And the impact on these partnerships is clear: Sustainable farming has benefited the lives of farmers immensely. Not only are the Cocoa Doctor’s trained, but there is a program for the Cocoa Doctor’s spouses, to ensure there is shared decision making on the farms. Shared decision making is key to the success in these cocoa villages, by empowering women in communities to help make decisions their income levels have increased, and in turn, their quality of life and ability to provide good nutrition and education for their children has greatly improved.

Loved meeting the cocoa farmer’s spouses!

I also had the opportunity to visit a vocational school — SMK BoneBone — where we were welcomed by over 700 excited children. I learned how we work with the school to improve the infrastructure, develop curriculum and provide internship opportunities. I feel especially honored to have been able to see how we invest not only in communities, but also future generations.

Selfie with the lovely students at SMK BoneBone

How I Will Bring Indonesia Home

Every farmer I met in Indonesia had a favorite tree — the tree that is the most productive tree on their farm. One of the Cocoa Doctors I met told a farmer, “We will help you improve your farming process so every tree will eventually be your favorite tree.” When standing on the farm where the cocoa beans for our products are made, I realized how important it is to be a champion for these farmers, and to continue to tell their stories.

The delicate care taken in Mars Cocoa Research Station

My trip to Indonesia gave me a newfound respect for the chocolate treats we all have come to love and enjoy. I gleaned a fresh perspective for the level of craftsmanship and human touch at every phase of the product development journey, from the soil, to the bean, to the bar. I also learned that the cocoa plant is actually a fruit, which made me fall in love with it even more!

Me and my cocoa tree!

Indonesia’s national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” means “Unity in Diversity” but literally translates to “many, yet one.” For companies, rather than asking, “What’s in it for me?” moving forward, we can all look for ways to truly help others, in business and in life, to find unity by asking “what can I give back?”