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The Food of The Gods

Nigerians love chocolate as much as anyone, yet they have no industry making it.

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My seven-year old nephew recently asked me a sticky question: “Uncle Musky, where do chocolates come from?”

“Chocolates?” I quipped, scanning my mental box for a passable answer. “Yes, chocolates,” he repeated, licking choc-soiled fingers. “Where do they come from?”

Chocolates come from the cocoa tree, I said, wondering if he would buy the truth. “Cocoa tree?” he bellowed. “Where do cocoa trees grow, do we have cocoa trees in Nigeria?” I rolled my eyes: “How can we not have cocoa trees?!” Time for a quick geography lesson, I muttered to myself. We spent the next 10 minutes discussing the origins and uses of cocoa; cultivated in the tropics, its produce consumed in a variety of forms globally.

When my informed ignorance of the bitter-sweet bean began to wane, I grabbed an encyclopaedia (thank goodness for a good, old fashioned home library; and by the way, how many people still read hardcover tomes these days?) and, together, we searched for ‘chocolate’ which referenced the word ‘cocoa’ or ‘cacao tree’, the last term being a tree that produces an ovoid-shaped pod (fruit) containing cacao seeds or beans; the trees growing naturally in the South American jungle, thousands of years ago, well before processed cacao products began to go mainstream slightly over 100 years ago. Its scientific name: theobroma cacao, the Latin word ‘theobroma’ literally meaning “food of the gods” in English and ‘cacao’ being an Aztec word.

We read that it was the Spanish conquistadors (where didn’t they go?) that introduced cacao to the rest of the world (and I was thinking aloud, “but how can that be? Is it possible that they sold cacao beans to their trading partners in Africa, who then began to cultivate them?”). By now, my positively pesky one was staring suspiciously at my ugly face.

His mind was gyrating. “Aztec, Spanish sailors, America, Asia, Africa, where is Africa, is Africa in Nigeria?”, “Latin…What is Latin?”, “Food of the gods, who are gods?”, “Does God eat chocolates too?” I could see a litany of questions welling up in his eyes, so, smart lazy adult that I was, I swerved the conversation into a cul-de-sac.

Here was I, face-to-face with honest ignorance, confronting the classic heuristic dilemma of urban kids growing up in today’s Nigeria—let’s call them ‘Generation Y+’.

Born and bred in the early years of the 21st century, they will never grasp the agronomical world of their forbearers. Try telling the Y+ clan that rice (especially the American long grain type) was, not too long ago, an uncommon, foreign delicacy. Try informing them that the chocolates they now consume in various forms was once so rare, and so expensive only the elite and wannabe bourgeoisie could be seen enjoying them. These days, we all gobble up chocolate bars, chocolate sweets, chocolate-coated biscuits, a pantheon of chocolate cakes, and chocolate-flavoured cereals almost recklessly. Nigeria now has a confusing assortment of chocolate beverages, chocolate-flavoured yoghurts, chocolate-choked confectionaries and chocolate ice-creams to choose from.

The hot, humid climate also helps. Try drinking cold chocolate in steamy 35oC weather—or a warm cup on a cold, wet morning. I have not seen one person who has said anything bad about chocolates, except that too much of it may ruin your digestive borders, if you get my drift. A chocolate drink is a breakfast staple in most Nigerian homes, and for many, especially young, folks, saying “I want to drink tea” actually means “can I have a chocolate drink?”

So, now let us talk about Nigeria’s choc-revolution. The global obsession for ‘nice and sweet’ edibles has crept into Nigerian society like the subtle haze of a misty morning. Our choc-trajectory has been a long and trickling, subliminal evolution of our culinary culture. This was a land once famous for its cocoa plantations. The story of theobroma cacao in Naija (as most Nigerian youths call their country) chronicles the gastro-agrarian history of Chinua Achebe’s homeland. Once a grand and scenic symbol of Nigeria’s agricultural fecundity, the “Groundnut Pyramids” of northern Nigeria were the envy of the world, the nutty equivalents of the pyramids of Mount Sinai in Egypt, supplying the world with its stock of peanuts and vegetable oils (as recorded in Nigeria’s N200 bill).

Today, the peanut pyramids have been levelled, replaced by a plethora of urban jungles and conurbations; and the forests of the future continue to disappear as peanut fields, maize, cashew, oil palm and cocoa plantations struggle for space and economic relevance with religious institutions and property developers. This was how Nigeria lost its once prominent position in the global comity of cocoa growers, and thanks to ‘new age, modern’ realities (meaning global trade, cyberspace and the Anglo-Saxon influence), Nigerians now consume more cocoa and cocoa-based products than they produce. “My fridge is a haven of chocolate bars…especially white chocolate, I love them,” Ms. Uduak Johnson, a Lagos-based retailer told FORBES AFRICA.

With close to six million farmers producing an estimated three million tons of cocoa annually, about 50 million people worldwide depend on the crop for their livelihood, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. A glut of family-owned farms in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana produce 70% of this global output.

A significant share of these West African produce ends up in Africa’s largest population patch, as Nigerian and foreign companies in the food and beverages, pharmaceutical, personal care sectors buy up raw and semi-processed bean stock from farmers and trading companies, and the rest, as they say, is yum yum…chocolate bars, cakes, biscuits, toffees, and cocoa-based beverages.

So, the question, “where do chocolates come from?” deserves another answer. Chocolates do not come from cocoa trees. “They come from choc-factories in Austria, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Turkey, Switzerland, Ghana, even China and all those other places that Nigerians like to buy their sweets from,” says Mr Alan Akinkunle-Baker, a Nigerian-born, UK-based management consultant. “Our chocolate habit is really an imported culture.”

I disagree. Cacao consumption was a universal routine in previous millennia, well before ‘globalization’ arrived. The Spanish and South Americans must agree to share the credit for introducing cocoa to the rest of the world with their West African cousins. We need a Pan-African conference on the origins of theobroma cacao.

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Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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