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How chocolate can help control the spread of disease in West Africa

Credit Tom Neuhaus
The chief's youngest brother roasting cocoa beans as they prepare for making chocolate (2013)

On Saturdays in West Africa, it's funeral day. The rituals start early in the morning with locals blasting the music of Bob Marley and local artists to commemorate lost lives. People wear red and black while attending funerals.

People are dying from preventable diseases. Currently, Ebola is grabbing the headlines, but malaria and dysentery have long been the top deadly diseases in West Africa.

A Central Coast professor says he has a model to help combat the problem. The plan involves chocolate.

West African countries produce more than 70% of the world's cocoa. Dr. Tom Neuhaus is a professor of food science at Cal Poly and he's been visiting Africa since 2003. He says it's hard to see how a country can develop its economy, when a lot of time is spent on handling death.

"A lot of people told me, don't go, because they were afraid for me about Ebola," said Neuhaus. "But the big story is the suffering of Africa and why after independence, African countries just haven't gotten to a better point than they are now,"

Neuhaus co-founded Project Hope and Fairness in 2006, but he has been visiting West Africa since 2003. He says he realized that American academia was not paying enough attention to the underlying issues in the chocolate industry.

He says a trillion dollars in aid has been given to all of Sub-Saharan Africa since World War II and most of that money comes back to Europe or the United States.

"So the money goes into certain peoples' pockets, it almost never goes to the village. It doesn't help the people that it was intended to help. Basically, development as it's taught in universities, as it's practiced by the UN, etcetera, has been a miserable failure. So, what's wrong? Well, I think when you have the premise that you give money to the wealthy people, it doesn't trickle-down, it trickles across over back to the banks. So, how do you develop villages so that they can have proper sanitation so that they can wash their hands and they don't get Ebola," said Neuhaus. "Well, you have to get rid of poverty."

Neuhaus says, to get rid of poverty, you have to work at the local level. Since 2006, Neuhaus says his project has had three missions: to expose Americans to the realities of the cocoa trade, while also distributing tools to villages, then building small chocolate factories in various villages, and lastly building cocoa study centers in three West African countries. This summer, they established a second chocolate business in a village Ghana.

"We schlepped the chocolate machine, which is about 300 pounds in the back of a 4 by 4 and a bunch of tools and a microwave, to the village, Frami," said Neuhaus. He said he spent more than a week, teaching locals how to make chocolate.

"They made about 700 bars and 3,400 discs and they're selling them in the local markets," Neuhaus said.

The third aspect of Project Hope and Fairness, now being realized, is the cocoa studies center, which would partner with organizations giving students academic credit for an overseas experience.

"Even if you don't believe ethically that it's the right thing to do to get to know people in the third-world, practically from an economic standpoint, in order to be competitive with the rest of the world, American students really need to learn about the rest of the world," said Neuhaus. "So I believe these cocoa study centers provide a service to American universities."

He says his hardest work with the project is in the United States because of a lot of misconceptions surrounding Africa. And, he believes getting American students to study abroad to work in cocoa studies centers is a way to clarify some of these misconceptions.

"I totally believe that a lot of the world's ills can be fixed with education and I think this is a form of education that's extremely valuable," said Neuhaus.

He says, if he can't undo the effects of large chocolate, getting American academia involved in chocolate-making with local farmers is a way to enhance the bottom-up approach with this commodity.