MBA diary: Sweet on chocolate

Selene Scotton, an MBA student at ESADE Business School, explains how working for the Peace Corps in Benin piqued her interest in the cocoa industry

Everyone’s path to an MBA is individual. Mine began when I left a safe job and started a two-year stint in 2014 with the Peace Corps. I had started at an office job straight out of university, but even though it was a great company I quickly realised I wanted a more meaningful career. So I headed to west Africa as a community economic development volunteer.

It was there that I truly became aware of the real impact of supply and demand. Over the two years I spent in Benin I worked with local NGOs and entrepreneurs, assisting in business development, increasing financial literacy and improving technical skills. Though the projects varied, almost everything was tied to agriculture. It was in one that I  saw the direct effect seasons and pricing had on people’s livelihoods. For five months I lived in Sirarou in the north of Benin, a community that produced cashews, yams, soy, corn and shea. In harvest season, producers made money but a glut of supply and lack of storage meant that the prices they fetched were low. As supplies dwindled, food prices would rocket and became unaffordable for the average family, taking a toll on nutrition. When I moved to the south of Benin to Porto Novo, the agriculture production changed. There was more fresh produce such as tomatoes and peppers but the shelf life was very unstable. I helped to implement several projects including a food-processing centre to improve food security during the dry season, and expanded market channels and product improvements for an integrated farm and social business, Songhai Centre. At Songhai Centre I worked with the distributors to provide promotional materials as well as connect them with community events where they could sell more products. I applied customer feedback to develop labels and packaging and implemented quality assurance measures in the juice production factory to reduce spoilage. 

During this time I had a few "a-ha" moments. A lack of information, lack of business skills and obstacles to reaching a larger market had a big impact on producer communities. It was also clear that funded projects, which had no way to generate revenue, could only last so long when they depended on outside resources. So I began to explore how certain business models could contribute to development and became involved with a social business and innovation consultancy, Dare To Innovate. Through working with DTI, I saw great examples of such models, such as one that produced moringa powder (a popular "superfood") and specifically employed women, and a honey-production business that trained unemployed young people in surrounding villages so that they too could start a beekeeping project. They were all inspiring—but they were also on a relatively small scale. I was searching for something that had the opportunity to reach thousands. 

I knew I had to gain stronger business skills myself to make that happen. Taking an MBA seemed to be the right answer. So I travelled to Ghana to take the GMAT, and while on that trip I stumbled upon a cocoa forest for the first time, and asked to taste the fruit. That experience inspired me to look more closely at the value chain. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that it was the right industry for me. More than 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from west Africa and some of the main companies such as Cargill and Barry Callebaut are actively involved in sustainable efforts and improving the livelihoods of their producers. I had found the perfect opportunity to use the skills I had obtained during the Peace Corps, with the business acumen I would obtain from my MBA, to effect the change I wanted.

I decided on ESADE because it is highly international and incorporates innovation and social responsibility at the core of the curriculum. Over the past year I have explored how businesses can lead responsibly and drive positive change. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to lead: as the president of the Net Impact club I have organised activities and events that gives students a taste of social and environmentally responsible organizations, such as a visit to La Fageda, a yogurt-producing co-operative outside of Girona. This summer I completed an internship at Clasen Quality Chocolate, an American chocolate and coatings manufacturer, and conducted research for the World Cocoa Foundation on cocoa pricing and production. Three years ago I put my faith in the unknown, hoped for the best, and left for west Africa. I am looking forward to continuing to give back through my work, with new skills and an MBA under my belt.  

Readers' comments

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what a great story. There is hope for the youth and the future of the world. Let's hope for more Selene's of the world.


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