Acton Institute Powerblog

I, Chocolate: What Cocoa Farmers Can Teach Us About Trade

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Cocoa-farmersThere’s a famous essay by Leonard Read titled “I, Pencil” in which an eloquent pencil (yes, pencil) writes in the first person about the complexity and collaboration involved in its own production.

“Here is an astounding fact,” the pencil proclaims. “Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me…Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me.”

Trade makes unlikely friends — friends who, by creating, contributing, and trading, participate in powerful acts of service and gift-gifting, whether they know it or not. “Millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation,” the pencil writes, “no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

Written in 1958, Read’s essay has proven to be a helpful illustration of this reality. And now, in a new pair of videos from VPRO Metropolis, we find yet another.

In the first video, we witness cocoa growers and harvesters in the Ivory Coast, who, up until now, had never before seen, tasted, nor heard of chocolate, a primary output of their toil. They simply harvested the cocoa fruit and sold the beans to brokers. The rest was mystery.

“Frankly, I do not know what one makes from cocoa beans,” one farmer explains. “I’m just trying to earn a living with growing cocoa.”

Watch as they taste and enjoy their first bites of chocolate:

In the next video, we see the other side of the exchange, as Dutch pedestrians fail to identify either the cocoa fruit or its ultimate uses. “It looks like intestines,” one man says.

Here again we see how trade connects unlikely partners — motivating farmers to plant crops with little direction, and empowering distant consumers to purchase the output with little knowledge of its original source.

What a joy it is to watch farmers tasting and enjoying a newfound fruit of their labor: something made possible by countless people in countless distance places, who resumed their creative processes after beans were passed to broker. Likewise, though the passive ignorance of the Dutch seems rather silly, it is their simple purchases and preferences that contribute to the growth of this marvelous fruit and empower the hands that harvest it.

Through this powerful web of connected actors — across cultures, continents, and political systems — we see production and partnership, creativity and collaboration. As trade expands and circles of exchange and productivity continue to be cultivated, we can be optimistic that humanity will continue to rise together, slowly and gradually, spontaneously and mysteriously.

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Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.