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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Journey to the heart of Cocoa (part one)

Follow this four part series of 2012 Future Business Leader of the year winner, Vyacheslav 'slava' Polonski as he shares his experience of his trip to Brazil. (Part of his prize for the award).

A volunteering and discovery trip to the Mars Center for Cocoa Science in Bahia, Brazil.  

In April 2012, I had the supreme honour to be chosen as the national winner of the ‘Future Business Leader of the Year 2012’ award, which was sponsored by Mars Inc. at the annual TARGETjos 'Undergraduate of the Year Awards'. I went through a long selection process, which consisted of several tests, interviews, case studies, group exercises and presentations, and was invited with the other seven finalists to the gala awards ceremony in Canary Wharf, London. I remember when Amanda Davies read out my name as the unique national winner of the award, there was a sense of relief and happiness, but it was only when the Rt. Hon Michael Portillo passed me on the glass prize with my name engraved in it I allowed myself to believe it. From that moment I couldn't stop grinning like a Cheshire cat – nothing could wipe the joy from my face. When you realise your dream, it’s euphoric – there is no better feeling. As part of the award, I was given the opportunity to travel to Brazil for a unique experience at the Mars Center for Cocoa Science to get an insight into the history, present and future of cocoa, and volunteer with the farmers and the local school. During my undergraduate studies in Management at the London School of Economics, I never had to deal with cocoa or agronomy and was thus even more excited about the trip.

Arrival in Ilhéus:
After a long flight from London I arrived in the city Ilhéus in the region of Bahia. Ilhéus was once the epicenter of cocoa production and trade in Brazil and even today, every little detail of the town architecture reminds the ‘Baiano’ style of that time. Almost all historic buildings are decorated with cocoa pod ornaments. In fact, cocoa production has always been at the heart of Bahia. As the writer and scholar Hans Ostrom once noted: ‘Inside cocoa beans lies a secret that survives translations of growth and harvest, roast and grind, concoction and confectionary concatenation.” It all started with the ancient Maya and Aztec who used to prepare a coveted drink out of ground cacao seeds and other seasonings. In some cities cocoa seeds were used as a major currency system due to their high value. The relative buying power of quality beans was such that approximately 100 beans could buy a new cloth mantle. In the 18th century, the first cocoa crops were brought to Bahia from the Amazon forest and the city of Ilhéus rapidly became the center of cocoa trade and production in Brazil. The harvest was mostly exported to chocolate factories in Europe and the USA, giving rise to the reign of the ‘colonels’ in Bahia – wealthy and powerful cocoa farmers, who were vividly depicted in the romantic novels of Jorge Amado. During my visits of Ilhéus I had the chance to see many of the authentic locations of the novels, including the Ilhéus cathedral, the Bataclan restaurant that served as a cabaret in the early 20th century, as well as the town museum, featuring an exhibition about the era of the cocoa tycoons. After this sightseeing trip, my first night was spent at a hotel, before moving into the student house near the Mars Center for Cocoa Science in the next morning.


Next Tuesday Slava will be back with more of what he got up to on this life-changing trip.

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