Planting the Seeds to Cocoa Growth

GW student researchers traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for a project aimed at revitalizing the nation’s cocoa farming industry.

July 17, 2023

Members of the student group Compass in Trinidad and Tobago on their research trip talking to cocoa famers.

GW student researchers, part of the student organization Compass, traveled to Trinidad and Tobago at the end of May to talk with local cocoa farmers about impact investing. (Submitted photo)

A group of GW student researchers recently voyaged to the Caribbean for preliminary work in addressing a question the rest of us never hope to ask: what happened to all the cocoa?

Thanks to a $450,000 impact-investment grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, GW’s Institute for Corporate Responsibility (ICR) took on a project focused on reviving the cocoa industry in Trinidad and Tobago, which at one point produced 20% of the world’s cocoa. Once exporting tens of thousands of cocoa beans per year, the small island country now produces just a few hundred tons per year, according to a 2017 World Intellectual Property Organization report.

A rise in oil and gas exports from Trinidad and Tobago has made it less financially attractive to farm cocoa beans, and the industry’s hefty carbon footprint have provided more challenges to farmers as people and investors seek more sustainable outcomes.

The purpose of the project, called “Cocoa, Carbon and Community,” is to find ways to attract impact investment to sustainable cocoa farming while setting up supply chains with a net zero carbon goal. The creation of jobs, including for women, and social benefits for farming communities are other aims of reviving Trinidad and Tobago’s deeply rooted and historic industry.

“If you’re looking at cocoa farming, there are a lot of opportunities, but there is a lot of risk,” said ICR Director and GW Business associate professor of strategic management and public policy John Forrer. “Equity investors may look at options in other places with less risk than Trinidad and Tobago. We’re looking to bring in impact investors who want a reasonable return on their investment but are also interested in environmental and social impacts.”

Eight members of Compass—a GW student group that does consulting work for nonprofits, start-ups and social enterprises to develop impacting investment proposals—spent eight days in late May in Trinidad and Tobago talking to farmers and seeking participation for a survey they developed before departure that would help identify their needs and interest in the project.

With a home base at the University of West Indies-St. Augustine Campus (the home base of ICR’s partner Cocoa Research Centre), Compass members went to every corner of the island to talk with and learn from cocoa farmers. These conversations gave them a sense of potential investment opportunities with attractive financial returns that also have positive social and environmental impacts.

“We were able to get an authentic view of what the right thing to do for these farms was,” said Zachary Rosenfeld, who just graduated in May with an international affairs degree and concentration in international economics. “Coming from an outside perspective allowed us to get a really interesting kind of interaction with a lot of these farmers.”

Overall, they found the farmers to be receptive and eager to learn about improving impact investing opportunities.

Looking at this issue through a holistic lens allowed for diverse conversations between student researchers and farmers. Essentially, there’s a bridge to be gapped with the economic and social factors of revitalizing the industry historically important to the island’s communities while making sure it doesn’t come at a cost environmentally. Gaging those needs and ambition is a first step to crossing those bridges that could ultimately lead to impact investing.

GW student researchers were grateful for the immersive opportunity, especially given the very niche field of cocoa farming, and the trip further inspired their desires to seek impact-driven work.

“I can't think of any other projects or any other job that would ever give me the opportunity to go to Trinidad and Tobago and talk to actual farmers that were there harvesting cocoa and learn so much about the industry and about the culture itself,” said Neha Panigrahi, a recent economics graduate who minored in sustainability and political science and is working as an energy sustainability researcher at ICF. “I really realized that I want to stay in this line of work of sustainability and research and being able to help in that kind of way.”