Kevin Wilkins has experienced an exciting life journey by exploring different opportunities, from serving in the military, to serving in the Peace Corps, to interning at the White House, to undertaking a fellowship in Côte d’Ivoire. All these experiences have led him to the Grow Cocoa organization, where he is working to ensure that ethical practices be sustained in the cocoa growing farms.
I think that the area in which I would like there to be progress surrounds livelihoods programs, and getting them right. Since I work with GrowCocoa, I regularly engage with farmers to ensure we continue to develop their capacity and see that needs are fulfilled.
First, right out of high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, where I served for four years with the elite marching and drill unit, the Silent Drill Platoon. Following four very rewarding, personally and professionally formative years of military service, I headed off to college in South Florida, where I sped through the standard four-year program in just two and a half. During that time, I was fortunate to tackle an internship at the White House, where I worked in the Office of Presidential Personnel, working with the team on the financial, regulatory, and transportation portfolios. Also, during my time in school, I was afforded the opportunity to participate in an education program in Tanzania for a summer, which was a turning point in my career and life. Hired to work at the White House after my internship, and after working with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, looking forward career-wise, I decided to join the Peace Corps.
In the Peace Corps, I spent two amazing years working primarily in agroforestry, education and health in Senegal. After completing my assignment with the Peace Corps, I secured a fellowship with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help. I was sent to Côte d’Ivoire to join the ECHOES (Empowering Cocoa Households with Opportunities and Education Solutions) program with the World Cocoa Foundation. The ECHOES umbrella is an incredibly well-designed and implemented program that really works beyond just the cocoa farm. All of this was during an election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, so we ended up having to leave.
Forced to evacuate, I arrived in Ghana, ready to work with school administrators to free up already allocated funds for extracurricular activities and programs at the school level. When my fellowship wrapped up, I found myself back in Washington, DC, now working with an infrastructure advisory firm, focused on advisory services and the expansion of projects and programs in Africa. Just this past fall, I began work with GrowCocoa, which represents the evolution of the Blommer Chocolate Company and Olam International relationship in Southeast Asia as well as West Africa, focused on cocoa sustainability and community livelihoods programs.
Can you explain a bit about GrowCocoa?
GrowCocoa is a nonprofit organization focused on sustainably and responsibly securing the future of the global cocoa supply chain through shared value, linking the farm to the fork, and improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their families.
Formalized in 2012, GrowCocoa solidifies the commercial link between Blommer Chocolate Company, the largest cocoa processor and ingredient chocolate supplier in North America, and Olam International Limited, a global integrated supply chain manager of agricultural products and food ingredients. GrowCocoa is a permanent, resource-stable structure able to move the shared cocoa sustainability vision forward.
Blommer and Olam have been working together in addressing cocoa sustainability since 2004, when they established SAFOB (Sulawesi Alliance of Farmers Olam & Blommer) in Indonesia. Adapted for Côte d’Ivoire in 2007, Côte d’Ivoire Farmers Olam & Blommer (CIFOB) was born.
Rooted in both Blommer Chocolate Co. and Olam International sustainability programs, GrowCocoa is well represented within the Blommer Sustainable Origins™ and Olam Livelihood Charter sustainability plans.
When I arrived in Senegal, I had nowhere to stay. I had no hut in the village when I arrived. I was given the choice to either stay back at the Peace Corps’ regional house while organizing my living arrangements or to stay with a village leader. I chose to stay with the village leader, and this decision made all of the difference in the world to me. Like anyone entering a new culture, the assimilation period can be awkward. Although you can assimilate to the lifestyle or the culture, you still stand out in certain areas, but in my experience the people really opened up to me, and that helped me figure it out. I was immediately taken aback by the genuine kindness and generosity, and together we grew over two years.
Staying with a family in Senegal rewarded me the experience of having a large family. After having joined this family, I now had several moms, several brothers and sisters that I considered my own. My “mom” in Senegal would always ask questions of my biological mom and vice versa. My mom eventually made the trip of hours of off-road traveling to come visit me in the village of Senegal where I lived. When my mom and my Senegalese mother met, they could not communicate, but just held each other and cried due to the bond they felt. Moments like these make you realize that we really aren’t all that different from each other.
After the serving the in Peace Corps in a predominantly Muslim country, then moving to Côte d’Ivoire, which while not necessarily an even split between Islam and Christianity, I was not only fascinated, but it of course required a bit of an adjustment. In both of the countries, people were very respectful and I never felt like an outsider for being a Westerner. While there’s a name for visitors wherever you go, and I heard it more often in some places, I was intrigued that I was only addressed differently once in Côte d’Ivoire.
The only time I was addressed differently in Côte d’Ivoire was when a mother and her daughter were passing by as I was leaving my apartment for work one day. Staring at me, they eventually came up to me and the mother said, “Can my daughter shake your hand? She loves ‘the white.’” Those memories to me are irreplaceable.
I think that the area in which I would like there to be progression surrounds livelihoods programs, and getting them right. Since I work with GrowCocoa, I regularly engage with farmers to ensure we continue to develop their capacity and see that needs are fulfilled. We are there to give back and to support women, children, and teachers, and to encourage open markets, which I think really begins with engagement at the farming community level.
In regards to my organization, continuing to work towards ethically focused and fair markets that are true to the needs and desires of each party involved, including the companies, consumers and farmers, that is a good start and certainly a good path to be on.
The Grow Cocoa Website can be found at www.growcocoa.org