The Loooooong Story

This is the backstory of where this research came from and who is involved.

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This used to be a social enterprise.

During the time of building my company BLYSS, a cacao growing and trading social enterprise - we were asked by our farmer neighbours to help them learn how to grow and sell great cacao too. Thus started the where I sat with my agronomists and we formed a model-farm and nursery program to upskill farmers around our locations. It was both training and help, as well as a great way for us to help others grow cacao which we could buy after. We promoted fair and great work where you grow vegetables besides your cacao, use rotten pods for fertiliser and encouraged natural and low input farming so it was affordable and possible for small scale farmers with just a couple of hectares to earn income from cacao.


Prove it

I was very proud of this, and had trained over 2000 farmers and also about 500 people from chefs to chocolate companies about how cacao grows. Then one day, Professors David Guest and Merrilyn Walton asked me HOW I can prove it really helps farmers. Sure, I could see that they had a better life quality and access to earning more which most did. However, all I had was business style accounting and not really proof about impact on better living.


My father taught me about agroecoloy as he was a second generation rubber farmer from Papua New Guinea. My mother taught me about social care as she and my grandmother set up shared services and resources around the plantations. I had built a a chocolate company and a sustainable business organisation  and was considered an 'expert' by my colleagues and peers. I was educated and board member of industry associations like this and this . I was an advisor to governments about sustainable finance and green growth. And here was a professor asking me for proof. He did not want to see a chart or a presentation from our activities. 


They said: Prove it, on scale

David and Merrilyn challenged me to really identify the effectiveness of the training of cacao farmers for visible impact in health and plant productivity. They themselves are 30 years in research and interventions in plant productivity and public health respectively and in the last years had started cross-disciplinary research to find the links.  David exasperated at all the funding spent on training globally with a real-time decline on cacao yields, farmers in active work and health of the families involved. 

David and Merrilyn said that millions of dollars are spent on farmer training, with the assumption that farmers are unhappy with current livelihoods, but lack knowledge to change. These top-down spoon-fed programs which fail to engage women and youth, designed to satisfy project milestones about volumes of interventions made --> not about the real impact it had. 

He had a point. And although I loved that we had built, I needed to really answer this question objectively.

Took the challenge and revisited everything I knew

In 2018 I enrolled in post-graduate research at the University of Sydney environmental science, and committed to find how the real effectiveness of all that money which is spent on cacao farmer training and related extension services.

It is a challenging time for small farmholders in cacao, who use the crop more of a fortress strategy. There are not many incentives for farmers to  maintain cacao, they have little security regarding pricing, buyers and experience significant climate change impacts. Certification schemes have failed to improve health, wealth and agroecology and extension services have not delivered. There are hundreds of trainings and cash, yet the capacity and incentive to actually implement knowledge in the face of such difficult financial and labour constraints are to be understood.


Merrilyn and David's research showed the strongest correlations between farmer wealth / crop production and

  1. Level of education
  2. Crop diversification, ownership of livestock (pigs and chickens)
  3. Health of the farmer and family

Surprisingly, and contrary to much discussion in the business of cacao, this was independent of extension training or other biological, geographical or socioeconomic factors in the south pacific / asia cacao growing region. In context of this, their research from the team over the last 3 decades showed that most people do not go onto high school, childhood stunting is significant so the chances that the kids grow into healthy famers is challenged, obesity in the same household is emerging as a sign of food insecurity and nutrition quality, there is poor water and sanitation and chronic conditions are not diagnosed or treated in time. Women needed family planning support and domestic violence was high.

Eating humble pie

Research pushes boundaries where business won't go. In business, we learn quickly to survive and thrive and just get over challenges. Research forces you to really investigate WHY an intervention has a result or not. 

While I bring a lot from my business mentality - the orientation of change management and stakeholder engagement, lobbying for regulatory change and creating business. I had to relearn critical thinking and deep research. I had to reset habits and routines.

Mostly I have had to leave my ego at the door and let the science lead me to answers I seek. Most months I see how many of the approaches we do in business are flawed and although they are enduring, there need input from taking time out to really ASK what is the best answer. 

I find in social enterprise there is a lot of heart and wishes for good. In commercial business there is a lot of push for profit and gain. Neither of these approaches are really sustainable nor have the best interests of farmers, consumers or the earth at heart. 

This research gives me a good reason to go uncover that all. Use my past and present business activity and work to delve into years-long work to find out what really is effective for farmer health, wealth and agroecology in farmer training.

It is our opinion that intensification, diversification and equity are essential to sustainable cacao futures. That a more multi-diverse engagement of women, young farmers and investment needs to be made. That the answers is at source, and participatory-action oriented research and extension services are needed. We need to support better education education and health services to remote locations and collaborate with the entire value chain from traders to grinders, agriculture departments to customs and chocolate makers.

I am grateful for the University and funding supporters who contribute to this work. To my Professors for kindness and insight. To my team and customers for patience to know that I spend time on this. To my family for being my souls'-delight on legs.

It is 100 years since my grandfather established our family plantation on the high hills of Sogeri. My grandmother was the first matron of Port Morseby hospital. Land and health run in my blood. I am proud to continue our family heritage, in my own modern way.

I am actively looking for collaborations on this very long term study for organisations and companies who want to have their training models as part of our research, who want to share research and data and be part of test cases. 

Thanks for all support. 

Alyssa Jade McDonald - Baertl 

Join us for the journey

The cacao industry has called for transparency and we can all start to share our projects, data, and collaborations better.

Conference engagement

All together, we work together as a great team and share and support each other's research at conferences. The more transparency and sharing, the better this industry is. So contact us here if you would like to feature the latest.


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