Launch of Impact Hub Berkeley’s Sustainable Food and Ag Series

by Lawrence Nussbaum, Collaborative Trade Fellow, Impact Hub Berkeley

The rise of the “good food” movement over the past two decades has coincided with an increased desire for authentic and ethical relationship with our food source.  As new breeds of artisan makers, mission-driven food companies, and discerning consumers seek ethically sourced ingredients, new mechanisms toward collaboration and partnerships between farmers and food producers seek to refine and reflect the values of quality, equity, and environmental stewardship in supply chain relationships.

Building on this momentum, Impact Hub Berkeley, along with Yellow Seed, launched their Collaborative Trade series on January 26th as part of the year long From the Ground Up – Change Accelerator program. The Change Accelerator seeks to amplify the work of leading experts, organizations, and social enterprise in sustainable food and agriculture to co-create solutions and develop joint initiatives. The program combines dynamic, salon style working groups, on-line information sharing, and public facing events to build awareness, participation, and new partnerships..

The Collaborative Trade series (one of four focus areas of the FtGU program) is targeting the chocolate sector and cocoa supply chain to explore the issues and opportunities for improving  market relationships whereby farmers, buyers, food companies, and organizations working to improve the lives of small-scale farmers, all work together to accelerate the shift towards more just and equitable trade.  

To follow the collective conversation of the salon series, see Yellow Seed’s blog for an Intro and Session 1 highlights of the unique voices and perspectives that are co-creating this emergent learning experience.


Chocolate is a most beloved food product, but 90% of the global cocoa supply used to make chocolate is based on intensive production systems that favor low prices and environmentally exhaustive practices. On the other hand, the small but growing specialty markets for ethically sourced, high quality, cocoa represent a great opportunity to help improve the livelihoods of farmer communities, support ecologically-sound practices in origin countries, and elevate the quality and craft of artisan chocolate making.

The January 26th Collaborative Trade “Innovation Salon” focused on building trust and transparency within the cocoa supply chain to ensure that social, environmental, and quality considerations have  maximum benefits for all of the parties involved.  Given the nature of our global industrialized food system, it can be extremely challenging to build trust around food supply issues, particularly when some cherished goods, like the cocoa beans used to make chocolate, are produced in poor countries far away from the end consumer.  How does trust affect farmer/buyer relationships? What information does each player in a trade system need in order to make decisions.  How are consumers to trust market claims around equity and sustainability?

To explore these questions, the Innovation Salon brought together a diverse group of leaders with experience and/or interest in building collaborative trade relationships within the chocolate industry. Representing a variety of perspectives, participants included small to medium sized chocolate makers, a large natural foods producer, cocoa buyers and intermediaries, several NGOs representatives who work with farmers, and others working in education, certification, and related aspects of the chocolate industry (see list below).  

Utilizing an open style sharing format, and fueled by delicious, activating chocolate, the co-created topic-led discussion encompassed an atmosphere of camaraderie, cooperation, and inspiration toward achieving common visions and shared excitement around the potential of a sustainable chocolate industry.  Yellow Seed documented these voices and a detailed account of the discussion is available on the Yellow Seed Blog.

Throughout the facilitated discussion, important and insightful topics surfaced and the groundwork was laid for future collaborations to address common challenges and opportunities.  Some of the key emergent themes are highlighted below:

Collaboration involves trust among ALL players:

The current system of trade is built around an extractive power dynamic, where buyers initiate and control the conversation regarding environmental, social, and quality considerations so that they can acquire the raw materials desired for their business.  A trust relationship, however, is mutual and flows in both directions. In other words, farmers also need to trust buyers in order to make the types of investment and commitments being asked of them to satisfy the needs desired by the specialty marketplace. In this sense, understanding the motivations of farmers, establishing meaningful partnerships with in-country resource providers to support information flow and providing assurance of long term benefits are essential components of the trust relationship.

Cultural differences need to be considered around notions of trust:

There are cultural differences regarding levels of transparency in human interactions. Trust and truth are not necessarily the same thing. Truth relies on factual accuracy, whereby trust refers to the reliability of people or products. Different versions of the truth will always be available depending on the assumptions and incentives of different stakeholders.  It is through this lens that we take into account the cultural expectations and motivations for all players in order to collaborate, communicate, and ensure that all needs are met.

Trust relies on a transparent framework for governance, exchange, and information flow:

Trust is an outcome of a reliable and known system that guides the trade relationship. Are the terms clear?  Is their long term viability?  Does money return back to the farmer level from the buyer cooperative?  In origin countries, trust also requires a known process for governance, participation and accountability at various levels, which is not always the case.  In terms of successful communication, it also important to understand how information flows through this framework.  For example, farmers often gain trusted information from peer to peer sharing and in-country resource providers (who are generally geared toward larger commodity systems as opposed to the needs of specialty markets).  Information sharing must consider and accommodate these systems.

Trust is built through meaningful relationships and reliable information:

Certification and ecolabel programs were created as a mechanism to build trust in supply relationships and have had some levels of success, but these programs are geared toward larger companies, can be onerous for small farmers, and don’t necessarily empower innovation nor tell a full and detailed story.  Instead, mechanisms that support meaningful, informative, and direct (where possible) relationships based on two-way communication have the greatest potential to improve quality, support best practices, ensure maximum benefits to the farmers, and better meet the diverse needs of chocolate makers and other stakeholders. These relationships help demonstrate the long term commitments and viability of the trade connection (i.e. will the buyer continue to purchase the farmer’s beans after they make the necessary commitments, will farmers be able to supply the buyer year after year so they could market a consistent product?).

Trust is built through social networks:

The strongest mechanism for building trust is through “trust networks”.  For example, not all chocolate makers will be able to visit farmers in country, but, instead, can rely on colleagues to vouch for and verify potential sources.  The same is true on the farmer side where peer-to-peer sharing is a key element to gaining trusted information.  As well, the overall the sector is dominated by major food corporations and to compete within this global system, small scale makers can pool resources and work together in purchasing specialty cocoa and support trusted community producers.  The notion of trust networks provides many opportunities for convening, organizational collaborations, on-line tools, and other sharing models.

Based on the iterative process of this highly engaged working group, emergent solutions and co-created opportunities are already surfacing around these themes. For example, coordinated cooperative buying mechanisms for craft producers, peer-to-peer information sharing programs, participatory structures of governance, and on-the-ground demonstration/education projects are actively being explored. Specific co-created projects will be further informed by the next sessions in the series as we look at issues of logistics and finance support as well as the role of technology, tools, and strategic partnerships that address some of the surfaced issues and opportunities.

As became clear during the Innovation Salon, transparency is important at all levels for informing the supply chain and telling an accurate and compelling story.  However, stories will mean different things to different stakeholders.  In our next series to be held on February 8th, we will explore some of these different perspectives to understand the types of information that is needed in order to guarantee an equitable and quality product and communicate that story throughout the trade system and, ultimately, to the end consumer.  

Session 1: “Building Trust in Collaborative Trade” Participants


  • Summer Allen, International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Galen Berkowitz, Cacao Bahia/ Pantek Partners – remote
  • Greg D’Alesandre, Dandelion Chocolate
  • Catherine Campbell, Marker Campbell Consulting, Inc.
  • Karin Gregg, Clif Bar
  • Jay Holecek, Origence, & Trade partner of Nova Chocolate, EcoCacao Coop
  • Jonas Ketterle, Firefly Chocolate
  • Laura Kowler, Solidaridad
  • Lawrence Nussbaum, Collaborative Trade Fellow, From the Ground Up
  • Justin Polgar, Yes CaCao
  • Brian Wallace, Endorfin Foods
  • Brent Willett, Regenerative Foods and Cocoa Logos
  • Megan Vose, El Motete Marketplace and California Farm Link


About the Author:

Lawrence Nussbaum is a sustainability professional and natural foods advocate who helps mission-driven companies and organizations create sustainable sourcing solutions, assess environmental and social impacts, and develop creative marketing and communication strategies. Lawrence holds a Masters Degree in Social Ecology from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and has had an active career working for NGOs, private food companies, tech start-ups, and independent consulting firms. As a home chocolate maker, Lawrence has spent the past several years learning about cacao production and the craft chocolate movement; traveling to origin countries, attending conferences and trade shows, and completing course work at the Ecole Chocolat School of Chocolate Arts. He currently serves as the Education Director for the Northwest Chocolate Festival, one of the largest gatherings of craft chocolate makers in the world, and is a Collaborative Trade Fellow at the Berkeley Impact Hub as part of the From the Ground Up Change Accelerator.