Here is just one example of the positive impact a large "evil" multi-national corporation has on economic development among the poor. There are many other stories similar to these that are rarely seen in the press.
... Seventy percent of the world's cocoa grows in West Africa, and most of that in one country, Ivory Coast. Since 1999, Ivory Coast has been through a bloody succession of military coups, rigged elections, and civil wars. "We were concerned about running into a ceiling on production there," says Harold Poelma, managing director of Cargill Cocoa. So Cargill began looking for other options. The solution that it came up with perfectly illustrates the company's global reach and long view.
Cocoa trees look like something Dr. Seuss would draw, with clusters of hard-shelled pods, as big and colorful as Halloween gourds, sprouting directly from the trunk and limbs. They don't grow just anyplace. They need shade, warmth, and humidity, as well as deep, rich soil -- conditions generally found within a band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. That band passes through Vietnam.
Cargill was one of the first U.S. multinationals to return to Vietnam when President Bill Clinton normalized relations with the government in Hanoi in 1995. Today it is the country's largest domestic producer of livestock feed and a central player in Vietnam's fast-moving shift from a state-controlled agricultural economy to one where small farmers are encouraged to work private plots for private gain. The effect of that shift has been transformative. Not long ago, Vietnam was importing a million tons of rice a year. Last year it became the world's second leading rice exporter. "Same people, same land," Vietnam's director of crop production, Dr. Nguyen Tri Ngoc, told me in his Hanoi office, speaking through a translator. "Before, farmers were not really farmers. They were workers in the fields, and they worked under the supervision of the government." And the difference now? "Free markets!" he says in English.
In 2004, Cargill launched a public-private partnership with one of its biggest customers, chocolate giant Mars, and the governments of Vietnam and the Netherlands. The aim: to create something that had never before existed in Vietnam, a cocoa-export economy.
First, Cargill had to convince a front line of growers to switch to cocoa from well-established crops like coffee, black pepper, and cashews. Two years before the first harvest (it takes at least that long for cocoa seedlings to produce fruit), before there was anything to buy, Cargill opened two fully staffed cocoa buying stations on major roads, in Ben Tre and Dak Lak provinces. It made an early commitment to transparency, posting on the Cargill website and offering by text message both the daily international price on the London market and what Cargill is paying locally; growers can lock their price for three weeks, the time it takes to ferment and dry the beans after harvest. Cargill also built a network of more than 100 demonstration farms, where curious growers can learn from their neighbors. And in February 2011 the company took delivery of the first Vietnamese cocoa beans to carry UTZ certification -- an independent sustainability program through which growers can earn an extra $100 per ton.
This year Vietnamese farmers will produce about 2,500 metric tons of cocoa, 70% of which will go to Cargill. That's a tiny sliver of the 3.4 million-ton global market, but the growth trend is impressive: 40,000 acres under cultivation in 2010, compared with 1,200 in 2003, and already 32,000 active growers in 12 provinces. Poelma sees the potential for 100,000 tons by 2020. Instead of shipping all of that to Cargill's North Sea Canal processing plant in Wormer, the Netherlands -- a voyage that takes 24 days -- Cargill hopes to have a Cargill factory in Vietnam by then, processing cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder for export to growing markets in China and India.
None of that happens without the eager participation of thousands of small growers. One I met last summer was Trinh Van Thanh, a smooth-cheeked 43-year-old with a wife, three daughters, and roughly four acres of land in Baria-Vungtau province, a two-hour drive southeast from Ho Chi Minh City. Five years ago Thanh was growing pepper and coffee and raising pigs, and he was struggling. His pepper trees were afflicted by blight. The yield from his mature coffee trees was declining year by year. He says he was $5,000 in debt.
Thanh planted his first cocoa saplings, as Vietnamese farmers often do, in the shade of his coffee trees. He enrolled in an agricultural extension program in Ho Chi Minh City, where he learned how to build a specialized slow-drip irrigation system based on technology invented on an Israeli kibbutz. When the first crop came in, Thanh made the ambitious choice to ferment and dry the cocoa beans himself. Ultimately, he built more fermentation boxes and drying tables than he needed for his own crop, which meant he could perform those value-adding services for other growers. Soon he wasn't just farming, he was running a collection station. Next he planted a cocoa-tree nursery. Then he launched an irrigation consulting business. (The man gets the concept of a virtuous cycle.) Thanh still sells all his beans to Cargill but maybe not for long. What he really wants to learn how to do next, he told me, is make and sell chocolate.
Thanh's success so far almost defies belief. He says his mini cocoa conglomerate will gross more than $850,000 this year. And if his daughter, who's about to graduate from high school, wants to go to college in America -- and he hopes that she will -- he can easily afford it.
Later in Hanoi, I tell Ngoc all about my visit to Baria-Vungtau province. When does a farmer like Thanh, I ask him, become too much of a capitalist for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam? Ngoc beams. "No limit!" he says. Again in English. ...