Curtis Vreeland recently had a chance to catch up with Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, on the eve of the WCF's 2015 Partnership Meeting and Cocoa Sustainability Trade Fair, slated for June 30 - July in Washington, D.C.

Guyton discusses how his background in the Peace Corp shaped his perspective, what motivates corporations to pursue sustainability, and the future of the WCF.  

Editor's note: The following has only been edited for length and clarity.

1. What was your background prior to becoming the World Cocoa Foundation’s (WCF) President?

I am an agricultural economist and have always been interested to work on development issues.  I started my career as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. After getting my Master’s Degree, I worked for more than 10 years in developing countries advising and putting in place environmental and agricultural programs for USAID, the World Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the German government.  I also was director of business development at the U.S. Grains Council.

Although I enjoyed working on U.S. agriculture at the Grains Council, my true passion has always been tropical crops.  That is why when the chocolate industry expressed interest to form an organization to focus on cocoa sustainability, I applied for the position.  I feel like I have been so fortunate to work over the last few years with such an interesting value chain.

2. Tell me more about your Peace Corps experience?

I was a volunteer from 1984 to 1986 in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I taught agriculture and biology in a secondary school near the equator and in the rainforest. The village was very remote, and had no running water or electricity. I lived in a compound with other teachers and students where I established lifelong friendships. The experience was humbling in many ways, and I left with a great respect for Africans.  That has carried over into other parts of my career where I have had the opportunity to work in other regions of the world and learn about other cultures.

3. What was WCF’s first significant development initiative?

The first major program supported by the World Cocoa Foundation was the Sustainable Tree Crops Project (STCP).  The program was a partnership with USAID and our company members, which focused on training improved agricultural practices to cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.  The program was innovative for the time, since we used “farmer field school” technology, adapted for cocoa and other tree crops.   

4. Describe three of WCF’s most important current projects?

1. CocoaAction

Our newest initiative is CocoaAction, a strategy to enhance the West African cocoa supply chain. This initiative is supported by 11 of our larger private sector members, including branded companies and value-chain companies, all of whom are committing significant long-term investments in their supply chains.

There are many unique aspects to the strategy.  For example, the companies have agreed to a common method of measuring impact and have combined community development and productivity elements to the farmer training programs.  The farmers have had a voice in this process since the start and are the center and focus of CocoaAction. 

2. Cocoa Livelihood Project

One of our largest programs is the Cocoa Livelihood Project (CLP), a private/private partnership funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and our member companies. This project will reach over 200,000 cocoa farmers and also incorporates food crops training to assist farmers in diversifying their income base. It also contains an important gender component, in that it integrates outreach to women famers.

3. African Cocoa Initiative

The third major project is the African Cocoa Initiative (ACI), a public/private partnership with USAID and company members, which helps build the capacity of local African organizations, including research institutions and farmer training services.

5. How is WCF addressing the consequences of climate change?

This is a very important concern to the cocoa community.  We are currently working with our partners to learn more about how climate changes impacts cocoa and how to adapt our efforts accordingly.  Our upcoming Partnership Meeting this week includes a session on climate change, entitled Climate Smart Cocoa.

6. How do you answer critics who accuse corporate leaders of only being interested in sustainability out of a desire to lower their costs through increasing the supply of their ingredients — as opposed to a desire to support programs that raise farmers’ incomes through higher farm-gate prices?

It is in the best interest of companies to always engage cocoa farmers in the development of programs.  Successful, professional cocoa farmers will result in better business for the private sector and ensure better long-term supplies needed to meet the demand for chocolate.  I have seen first-hand the impact of these programs and how farmers are earning more income and investing in farms that produce more cocoa.  This is a win-win for the farmers and the industry.   

7. What’s your response to the International Cocoa Farmers Organization’s charge that the voice of cocoa famers is missing from the sustainability/productivity dialog?

WCF and our partners include cocoa farmers’ input at every stage of the program process from design, to implementation to evaluation. 

WCF has offices in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Our staff works directly with our company members and local farmers to facilitate the implementation of the programs. 

Last year, our Board of Directors visited West Africa and had the chance to interview many cocoa farmers and farmer cooperatives to gain their perspectives on the programs and any adaptations that need to be made.  So, in everything we do, the farmers’ voice is very much at the center of our strategy.

8. What is the theme of this year’s Partnership Meeting and what is the projected attendance?

This year’s theme is “Proud of Our Past, Focused on Our Future.”

Being that it’s WCF’s 15th anniversary, we will take the first day to look at where we are now; what are our accomplishments. On the second day, we will look forward to planning for the next 15 years, identifying important new topics, such as climate change adaptation.

And, we forecast between 300 and 350 attendees, coming from a wide range of countries, including from all the major cocoa producing and consuming countries.

9. What are you hoping to come out of the Partner Meeting?

We would like to energize our participants; where we have come from and, more importantly, where we need to head over the next 15 years. So the meeting is exciting and the numbers are manageable so that people from diverse backgrounds will be able to meet and exchange ideas. 

10. Where do you envision WCF in three years?

What we are trying to do is strengthen CocoaAction.

Also working with our members and helping them strengthen their supply chains by building direct relationships with farmers.

WCF will also continue to invest in innovative technologies that can help farmers directly and develop impact and reporting systems to track improvements over time.

11. And finally, what is your legacy?

I am proud to be part of an industry where competitors in the marketplace see the value of coming together to invest in programs which will help cocoa farming communities.

And building partnerships has gone beyond just the private sector, to extend to host governments, the development communities and civil societies who help bring different talents and perspectives.  We now have to look toward the next 15 years with a vision to see more prosperous farmers and even greater impact on the programs we support.   

WCF snapshot:

HQ location: Washington, D.C.

Year founded: 2000

Number of members: 110

Curtis Vreeland, president of Vreeland &A Associates, specializes in confectionery market research. He has been spotting trends in the premium confectionery sector for Candy Industry Magazine for seven years.