Askinosie: It's Not About the Chocolate, It's About the Chocolate

By Megan Giller |

© Chocolate Noise

Megan Giller is on a journey to explore the real world of American craft chocolate with her digital project Chocolate Noise. 15 makers. 15 stories. 1 story per month. Her in-depth coverage goes beyond reviews and top 10 lists to capture the unique moments and personalities behind the bean-to-bar revolution. Subscribe to the series here.

Six months ago Shawn Askinosie, the owner of Askinosie Chocolate, stood in front of six massive boxes of cocoa beans and six massive boxes of rice. The Tanzanian air practically sweated onto him, and the mosquitos multiplied before his eyes like wildfire. One of those crops made him money; the other he sold in the U.S. and returned 100 percent of the profits to the Mababu community for school lunches. He didn’t have room to bring back both. You do the math about which one he chose.

If you’ve even heard the weird-sounding name “Askinosie,” it’s probably in the context of dark chocolate bars with coffee or chocolate ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, not African rice. But clearly there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes. The Chocolate Life's Clay Gordon explained, “Shawn is not looking to maximize his profits. He’s looking to maximize his company’s impact on the world.” He continued about the devout Christian chocolate maker (who, incidentally, was a criminal defense lawyer for 20 years), “I’m sure he tithes to his local church, and this is an extension of that concept.”

After Shawn took the rice and left the cocoa, he told the Mababu farmers they could keep it and sell it to other buyers, as long as they used the profits toward their 10-year business plan. “We have to come in as a partner, not as a great white savior,” he said.

In that spirit, I don’t want to tell a story about Shawn Askinosie. Travel with me instead to Tanzania to hear a cocoa farmer named LivingstonMwakipesile speak for himself about cocoa, international trade, and how his life has changed in the past few years because of the artisanal chocolate movement.

As Convoy of Hope African field operations director Daudi Msseemmaa said, “Africans are sometimes used as props in the story about what Americans are doing in Africa. I don’t think it’s intentional. But it’s something that naturally happens.”

I've Been a Cocoa Farmer My Whole Life

By Livingston Mwakipesile

As told to Megan Giller on May 29, 2015. Translated from the original Swahili by Kellen Msseemmaa

Livingston and Shawn gathering cocoa pods

When I was a little boy, I shared a bed with my brother. We were hungry almost all the time, and my parents were just mere cocoa farmers and didn’t have a good life. It’s funny to remember that now that I’m 64 and things have changed so much. In fact, my life has changed so much that I don’t even know where to start. At the rate things are going, I’m going to have things that I’ve never even dreamed of.

Now I own four houses, three of which I rent to other people in the community. And I’m building another one! They aren’t that big, but it brings in income. I didn’t go to school until I was 14 because I had to help my parents in the cacao fields, and I only stayed for 3 years, until what you Americans would call fourth grade. But my children go to the best schools in Mababu. I have eight children, five boys and three girls. One is going to private middle school, and the rest are in public school. I can pay their fees, and they don’t want for anything.

Now I own three cows and some chickens, so we eat eggs almost every day, which is unusual in Mababu. My wife, Mama Mpoki, grows vegetables in our small garden, and we eat those too.

My favorite thing to eat is rice and beef, but I don’t eat too much beef because it’s very expensive. And chocolate? We almost never eat chocolate, even though we grow cacao for a living.

I had never even tried it until Shawnie brought some back to Mababu, last year. It was very tasty!

I remember the first time I saw Shawnie. It was in 2013, and I was immediately happy, because I could tell he was interested in working with uscocoa farmers and I was sure he’d be able to sell our beans. Before I met him, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to sell the beans for a good price, or even at all. We always had a good crop, but often we couldn’t find a good buyer and would have to sell them at such low prices that we could barely make a profit. We would often go hungry.

But Shawnie changed all of that. He has particular requirements for how we grow and ferment the cocoa beans, but he buys them for much more than anyone else, and he shares 10 percent of the profits with us. I could just take my 10 percent, but all of the farmers in the Mababu CCF co-op have decided to keep it in the group. Anyone in the group can buy shares and borrow from the group, and we charge interest so that we make even more money.

Shawnie comes once a year and teaches us strategies to achieve our goals. It makes me feel like a young man again. We have to talk in present tense about our goals, like they have already happened. The first time, one of the men said, “I woke up this morning and I had a mattress, and I looked up and I had a ceiling in my house. My wife was so happy because she was able to go to the store and buy what she wanted at the market.” Tears were streaming down his face as he spoke.

Here are the ones from last time he was here:

7 August 2014 at Mababu Primary School

Facilitator: Shawn

Translator: Kellen

Transcribed by: Daudi

1. We will have our office with computers and many other things

• "At my office, I turn on the computer and take a look at our records of past years, and I am able to show my children these data."

2. All stakeholders are able to educate all of their children

• "The secret that enabled me to educate my children is cocoa sales."

• "When I was a young man, I was a businessman with a milling machine. Now I feel better than ever because even though I didn't get far in my education, cocoa enabled me to give my children the opportunity to go to school."

• "I educated my children, now one is working in the U.S. That one came home for Christmas and I told her the way cocoa made her to be able to reach for lofty aspirations."

3. We will have a big tractor, one lorry, and two power tillers

• "I am in the field, and I'm telling our workers, 'Be careful with our machines over there!'"

4. Our community will profit through us.

• "This morning I met a farmer. I explained to him how high quality cocoa can get him a better price, so that he can get better profit and a better life."

5. A good house for every member

• "I left that old thatch-roofed house behind. Now I park my car by the door of my new luxurious house. I told my wife, 'Don't ride your bicycle to the market, we'll take the car.'"

6. We help nearby schools

• "I told my daughter how today we took more than $4,000 worth of textbooks to the school in Mababu. I taught her that she should have a generous heart for giving."

7. We own wood projects: A chainsaw and a lumber milling machine

• "Today, on the 7th, I woke up and drove my car to the workshop and I found a big problem when I got there: There were so many customers, I had no idea how we would get to them all."

8. We have a power (electricity) project

• "I'm telling my children that we have uninterrupted power that doesn't go out, and it's because we got a very good customer. I want my children not to stop where I managed to reach in life, but to keep pushing forward." 

9. We help widows and orphans

• "Once upon a time, we got an American customer and since then we have been able to help orphans, who are now members of Mababu CCF."

Next time Shawnie comes, I want to get more training on how to improve our funding and get better tools so I can work better and get more out of it. Right now I have a big goal: Buy a tractor. I believe I’m going to get it. Shawnie’s teaching has helped me use my money more efficiently.

He’s helped our community in other ways too. He helped build three classrooms, so instead of studying under a tree in the rainy season, the children can study in a classroom. The students now have textbooks and laptops with videos and can learn better. For a long time Mababu children starved, and the girls dropped out of school to sell themselves in exchange for food. Shawnie heard about this when he first came to our country. We grow the most wonderful rice in Mababu, and he sells it in the U.S. and gives us 100 percent of the profit, for school lunches.

The kids in this school aren’t mine, though; my kids go to a different school. In the evenings and on the weekends I let them study instead of helping me on the plantation, because I don’t want them to get used to the cocoa plantation. I want them to go to school! They’re proud of what their father has done with his life, so they want to study hard and be cocoa farmers too. I’d love for one of them to become an accountant so that when our little cacao co-op grows into a big company, he can do the financials.

Because of Shawnie, my family has expanded our plantation. It’s on four acres, and now we are growing more cocoa beans than Shawnie can even afford to buy. I hope Askinosie Chocolate will expand so he can buy all of my beans. There are other small companies and middle men that will buy them, but I wish Askinosie could buy them all or help us find a buyer, because the other people pay us such a small price.

I would love to travel some day. I’d come to the United States so I could see how things are different from where I live, and just how they’re different.

Recipe: Dark Chocolate and Coffee Ice Cream From Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

One of my favorite parts about Askinosie Chocolate is their amazing collaboration bars, especially with Intelligentsia Coffee, another pioneer of direct trade. This ice cream from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams marries chocolate and coffee together perfectly, and it's kind of like a deconstructed (and then reconstructed) version of the Askinosie-Intelligentsia bar. Use Askinosie and Intelligentsia products for the most intense result (and the collaboration bar in place of regular dark chocolate for something truly unique), or substitute your favorite chocolate and coffee.

Makes a generous 1 quart


Chocolate Syrup

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup brewed coffee
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (55% to 70% cacao), finely chopped

Ice Cream Base

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1. For the chocolate syrup, combine the cocoa, coffee, and sugar in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate, and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir the syrup until smooth. Set aside.

2. For the ice cream base: Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese, warm chocolate syrup, and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

3. Combine the remaining milk, cream, sugar, and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

4. Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese mixture until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, for about 30 minutes.

5. Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister of an ice cream maker and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Excerpted from Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Desserts by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014.  Photographs by Stacy Newgent

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