Thursday, November 8, 2012

Journey to the heart of cocoa (part three)

Slava is back with his third posting this week and talks us through his crash course in cocoa and his day spent doing community work with Mars.

Have you ever seen a Frankenstein tree? In front of the main building of the Mars Center for Cocoa Science there is a tree, which is known as the Frankenstein tree among associates. It was created by grafting thirteen different varieties of cocoa together. This is why one branch of the tree does not look like the other. It is a natural technique that has been used by farmers for many centuries. On my fourth day, I could get a chance to create my own little Frankenstein cocoa tree by grafting and also get a hands-on experience in cocoa science at the on-site laboratories of the MCCS. For instance, in the biology lab I had a glimpse of the incredible diversity of cocoa and the breeding of nearly perfect clones, which were more resistant to diseases and also had a higher yield. My instructors were the bio-technology engineer Claudia and her assistant. They explained to me the programme that the MCCS undertakes to select the best varieties to multiply, and later on I had the opportunity to plant a few embryos in a glass jar myself. In this laboratory process it is possible to propagate several identical cocoa plants from a single flower – this process is called somatic embryogenesis. Afterwards, we visited the chemistry lab, the micro-biology lab, as well as 'crown jewel' of the Mars Center - the genetics lab. In 2010, a group of scientists under the leadership of Prof. Howard Yana-Shapiro unlocked the sequence of the cocoa genome and published this knowledge to the public domain, so that everyone would have free and continued access to it. Yana-Shapiro, who is Mars-internally also known as the 'godfather of cocoa', said that without engineering higher-yielding cocoa trees, demand would outstrip supply within 50 years, which represents a threat to the global confectionary industry. Jean-Philippe and the MCCS researchers are conducting further scientific experiments and studies to counteract this trend, thereby also helping biodiversity and farmers' welfare in the cocoa-growing region of Bahia. In this regard, my hands-on experience in the genetics lab was very relevant and exciting. In the morning, I have collected cocoa leaves and used a plethora of chemical substances to extract cocoa DNA from these leaves. Studying this DNA would allow scientists to reduce the fat content of cocoa, increase its disease resistance and to increase the yield of cocoa trees. Thus, these kind of improvements could directly affect the lives of some 6.5 million small cocoa farmers around the globe. The focus of the fifth day was anchored around volunteering and community work in the region. The associates at the Mars Research Center engage with almost all local farms and regularly supply them with essentials, such as drinking water, rice, beans and other basic products. That day, I had the chance to go with the MCCS community team on another field trip to visit three farms and to speak to the farmers and identify their needs in order to help them most effectively. 

In the afternoon, I was able to contribute my share to the education of these children by teaching English lessons at the Virginia Mars Municipal School. In spite of the language differences I could connect well with the children and tried to inspire them to be more assiduous in their studies of the English language. In Bahia, a decent command of English is considered a valuable and rare skill, and a real differentiator in the competitive job market. I started my first English lesson with an introduction and a vocabulary brainstorming session around the word 'friendship'. The students were a bit shy in the beginning, but as soon as we started a role play, I could see that they were really engaging with each other and the language. The pupils of my second English class were a bit younger and not as fluent. That is why I have decided to focus on an easier topic: different countries and cities. Later on, we played 'hangman' with the new pieces of vocabulary, which the kids genuinely enjoyed. Seeing the children’s smiling faces was indeed refreshing. After the lesson, Alan, one of my new students took me by the hand and dragged me to the head teacher of the school. I wasn't sure what he wanted to say, as he was explaining something to the head teacher in Portuguese in a very emotional way. Then, my translator said to me that he wanted to introduce me to the head teacher and that he said he would rather have me as an English teacher all year long, than all the other classes together. It was humbling and touching. I wish I could have stayed longer to share my time and knowledge with these avid pupils. 

Cocoa science crash course:

Community work for Bahia:

All of the farms we have visited were in a poor shape and it was truly moving to see the extreme poverty
these people were living in. They didn't have access to electricity, nor did they have drinking water or even the basic hygiene conditions. We visited derelict houses and witnessed how the locals get their water from a hole in the ground in the nearby forest, which was used as a rain water reservoir. This water was claimed to be 'clean' after the locals have thrown a peculiar fish inside, called 'piavi'. This fish is supposed to eat the major insects in the water, so that the water becomes supposedly drinkable. This is a century-old tradition in the region and is considered to be normal. All of the farmers live below the poverty line and it was alarming to see that some of them simply accepted the status quo. The children were also raised as farmers and were taught the traditions of their fathers. During our field trip we met Gilberto, a single father who was raising four children. His love and care for his offspring truly touched me. Despite his difficult situation, he invested everything he had in the education of his children. Gilberto has sent them to the only school in the region - the Virginia Mars Municipal School. He was a frequent visitor to the school himself, where he always eagerly enquired about their progress and what he could do to help his children with their homework. Having no education himself, he wanted to give them a better future. Gilberto explained that he was very happy that his children could go to school, but that he struggled with the materials they needed, such as pens, pencils and college blocks. Fortunately, I had my notepad and a few pens with me, which I happily gave to Gilberto. The family was very happy and I have spent some time with the children, teaching them how to draw houses and trees. In return, the oldest girl, who was ten years old and the only literate child in the family so far, wrote down her name and the names of her brothers with a small thank you note on a piece of paper and gave it to me. I could see that the father was very proud of her writing skills. This experience vividly demonstrated to me how even the smallest things can make a real difference. 

Next week it's Slava's final post about his time at the Mars Center for Cocoa Science, part of his prize for winning the Future Business Leader award. 

If you think you could be 2013's winner apply early to make sure you have enough time to complete the application.