Emily Stone

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2014
This description of Emily Stone's work was prepared when Emily Stone was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Emily Stone is disrupting the cacao market dynamics in Central America by developing eye level partnerships between cacao farmers and premium chocolate producers, making small holder farmers the protagonists of the system and ensuring their wellbeing beyond the cacao fields.

The New Idea

Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC), co-founded by Emily Stone, brings to the global chocolate industry a new and revolutionary way to source the highest quality cacao (cocoa beans) from smallholder farmers. MMC leverages the power of direct trading relationships and constant innovation to shorten supply chains and catalyze impactful social and environmental development in cacao-growing regions. The development, design, and implementation of MMC was led by Emily Stone in collaboration with chocolate makers Alex Whitmore (Taza Chocolate) and Jeffrey Pzena (Cotton Tree Chocolate, Moho Chocolate) in 2010.

Transparent, tour-able, high-quality cacao sources are not common in the industry, which focuses primarily on commodity-grade product, and are especially uncommon in smallholder farmer-based origins. The vast majority of cacao supply for premium or specialty chocolate makers comes from large plantation-size farmers, who centrally control post harvest processing (fermentation and drying). The "Fair Trade" model, most commonly pursed by chocolate makers to create impact and ensure ethics throughout the supply chain, does not include any incentives for a high quality cacao, limiting the effectiveness of the model for high-value, specialty markets.

MMC combines high-impact sourcing from smallholder farmers with centralized post-harvest processing, marketing, and export. This creates completely transparent business transactions and a true direct farm-to-consumer story for any chocolate manufacturer MMC does business with. MMC's complete control over the quality and fermentation recipe for the cacao allows the company to produce cacao beans of unrivalled quality and cleanliness from smallholder farmers.

MMC introduced centralized post-harvest processing to Belize, buying “wet” cacao from smallholders at the farm gate with immediate, fair compensation. For farmers, this model provides market stability, convenience, and focused attention on growing yields, while ensuring a fair and stable price for their product at or above the fair trade premium. This dynamic is creating rapid growth in Belize’s cacao industry, directly contributing to reducing deforestation risk and providing habitat for species in an internationally-recognized critical biodiversity corridor. Improving productivity yields and market access brings more money into rural indigenous Maya communities that have been growing cacao for generations.

Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) is the first and only entity to directly connect indigenous family farmers in Belize to the organic bean-to-bar chocolate market in the U.S. Premium chocolate makes up 17% of the $19B U.S. chocolate market and industry experts expect year-over-year growth in the bean-to-bar sector specifically at 75-100% in the short/medium-term. The chocolate bar produced by Mast Brothers (Brooklyn, NY) in June of 2011 was the first-ever U.S. commercial chocolate bar made of 100% Belizean cacao, sourced from MMC.

Historically, Belize sold all its cacao to Kraft Foods through a non-profit farmer association. Despite the Fair Trade certification of the association, the presence of this monopoly disincentivized innovation in services or prices. As a result, the industry had been stagnant for over 20 years as farmers were discouraged because of low prices and rejections of their dry cacao due to poor quality. MMC, alternatively, is focused on using its centralized post-harvest processing to create meaningful market linkages to specialty chocolate makers using a Direct Trade model of quality-focused direct relationships. This allows for greater market segmentation to acknowledge Belize’s high-value cacao varietals, encourages constant improvement in post-harvest processing quality, and provides new market incentives for farmers to grow their production and quicken industry growth.

MMC drives catalytic growth in Belize’s rural communities by partnering with local NGOs, community-based organizations, government agencies, microlending organizations, and others to reduce inefficiencies and empower communities and others to “own” the industry as it grows. This builds meaningful, integrated support networks that help MMC develop more effectively and efficiently.

Emily created a preliminary stock option program for her team, with two non-founding non-director employees currently owners of a small percentage of MMC.

The concept of using high-value organic cacao production to drive sustainable development, as imagined and implemented by Emily and her team, holds immense potential for the Central American region. The unique ecology and varietals of cacao found in this region are special, especially when compared with the commodity-level production of cocoa in West Africa. MMC's model and the replicability of that model could open up a new sourcing direction for chocolate makers around the world interested in supporting smallholder farmers and sustainable development while insisting on exceptional quality.

The Problem

The impacts of a growing population on natural resources present a massive challenge to development organizations worldwide. Combined with the effects of climate change, it is clear that new and innovative approaches to sustainable economic development are needed to alleviate pressure on natural resources and ensure food security.

Belize, located between Guatemala and Mexico on the Caribbean coast, is at the tipping point of this problem. Belize has the fastest population growth rate of all Central American countries (3.15% in 2012, World Bank) and also the greatest current percentage of forest cover (61.64% in 2012, CATHALAC). As the country’s population grows, deforestation is increasing and high poverty levels persist, especially in rural areas.

In the Toledo District of southern Belize, characterized by 70% indigenous Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya, 69% of the population is considered “poor” and “severe poverty… remains far higher than anywhere else in the country” (Belize Country Poverty Assessment 2009). The Maya of Belize are the most marginalized of Belize’s various ethnic groups, with the highest levels of indigence, worst mother and child health indicators and lowest secondary school assistance rates in the country.

Rural Belizeans typically rely on slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture to feed their families, despite there being little market value for corn, rice, and beans. This traditional practice cuts deeper into forests, as growing families require more land.

As mentioned, Belize’s fledgling cacao industry has historically struggled with quality and production issues because of farmers being required to do their own low-volume fermentations, the impact of climate change on drying of cacao beans, and lack of market incentives for growth. Farmers started abandoning cacao farms to seek jobs or grow other crops.

Organic cacao-based agroforestry provides an economic incentive for rural communities to preserve tropical forests, improving farmer livelihoods and driving industry growth. MMC empowers local producers to run entrepreneurial cacao farms and to grow prosperous farming communities through meaningful market access.

The Strategy

The introduction of organically-managed cacao-based agroforestry, with a focus on growing high-value varietals, into rural zones of high population pressure provides a highly scalable model for sustainable development in emerging economies.

MMC works directly with a network of over 200 indigenous Maya farming families, providing technical assistance, organic certification, farmer-friendly financing, and access to high value markets that pay premium prices for cacao. The growing market of bean-to-bar chocolate makers depends heavily on high quality, consistent raw materials. They sell to consumers who increasingly care more about transparent, ethical trading relationships. MMC provides a critical and meaningful connection between these chocolate makers and smallholder farmers, disrupting the Fair Trade paradigm and solving key problems inherent in the Fair Trade model as mentioned above.

Historically, cacao production in Belize has been limited to the south, but there is significant potential for expansion of organic cacao production to other Districts of Belize, specifically Cayo. Cayo is Belize’s largest District in terms of both area and population, home to the capital of Belmopan and the northern Maya Mountains. Cayo has Belize’s fastest-growing population and produces commercial vegetables, honey, and livestock. MMC has encountered high levels of interest from farmer groups in Cayo, NGOs, and the government to expand cacao production. Most farmers in the Cayo District have never been approached by the cacao market. MMC’s model of centralized fermentation and drying and marketing to the specialty chocolate market is easily replicable in Cayo. Infrastructure connecting farms and potential post-harvest processing centers is better than in Toledo. However, Cayo has no commercial cacao currently in the area, which is why MMC’s work under this project will begin with nurseries. A key objective of this project is to establish women-run community nurseries that can provide planting material for farmers, incorporating women into the cacao value chain in a meaningful way from the beginning.

MMC will also be planting its own demonstration nursery and farm in 2014. The establishment of MMC's own vibrant, productive organic cacao farm is an important symbol of MMC's investment in and commitment to the smallholder farmers of Belize. It will open up new, exciting opportunities for smallholder farmers to thrive by enabling the organization to spark drastically improved education, innovation, and technology for MMC's farmer network. Specifically, the MMC farm will serve as: a valuable clonal garden for smallholders to source high-quality genetic material to improve the production yields and quality of their own farms; a demonstration farm and training center open to farmers to learn about new ideas, best practices, and innovations in cacao farming; and a source of specialized, well-paid jobs for cacao farmers and their families.

MMC has begun engaging in other Central American countries as a facilitator of ethical trading relationships between existing small associations that are beginning to work on centralized post-harvest processing and ultra-premium chocolate makers interested in sourcing from this region. MMC has already begun laying a foundation for sourcing cacao from Guatemala because of its geographic proximity to Belize and the similarity of cacao varietals in the two countries. Guatemala is currently producing 1,500 metric tonnes (MT) of cacao each year from an estimated 8,000 smallholder farmer families (CATIE, July 2012). MMC's role in Guatemala would focus on proven core strengths of improved product quality and market access for smallholders.

Organizationally, MMC is constantly seeking innovative ways to align incentives throughout the cacao value chain. MMC has its own employee ownership program, and a cocoa merchant from MMC's key trading partner Ecom Trading/Atlantic Cocoa owns a small minority share in the company and is on MMC's Advisory Board. MMC has received investment from Taza Chocolate, a key customer, and Taza now owns a minority share in the company as well. Emily believes the more value chain players that have "skin in the game" with MMC, the more successful and ultimately sustainable the model will be.

Centuries of global commercial cacao cultivation and commodification has caused cacao production to drift from its roots of sustainability and biodiversity, but MMC is well positioned to recapture the environmental and social impact potential of cacao production and scale it meaningfully. In 5-10 years, MMC seeks to bring Central America back to the main stage of cacao sourcing for specialty chocolate makers, reincorporating the Maya heritage into chocolate-making in a meaningful way, improving livelihoods for thousands of smallholder farming families in the region, and preventing deforestation/encouraging reforestation in countries across Central America.

MMC has established itself as a catalytic and innovative cacao sourcing organization with meaningful impact in Belize through its thoughtful grassroots approach to developing and training its certified organic farmer network. Since MMC’s launch in November of 2010, the company has grown from 0 farmers to 52 (2011) to 119 (2012) to 203 (2013) in MMC’s network. The company’s processing volume increased 300% year-over-year in 2012, from 5 to 20 metric tones (MT), representing approximately one-third of Belize’s entire annual cacao production volume.

MMC’s introduction of “wet” cacao buying has rejuvenated Belize’s stagnant cacao industry. To complement MMC’s core business model, it has implemented specific projects to build momentum in farming communities, including: a 50,000 seedling project (5,000 trees at MMC’s own nursery, 20,000 trees grown in partnership with Ya’axche Conservation Trust, and 25,000 trees on decentralized nurseries run by farmers); the construction and operation of a 50 MT/year fermentation and drying facility; development of a pre-harvest loan program in partnership with Kiva, and successful certification of 203 farmers to USDA NOP organic standards. MMC has partnerships with community-based farmer associations, NGOs, government agencies, and international buyers including Ecom Trading and various premium chocolate companies. None of MMC’s customers or trading partners had ever worked or invested in Belize prior to their relationships with MMC.

Through a combination of planting projects, access to credit, facilitation of farm expansions, and partnerships with stakeholders, MMC expects volume of organic cacao sales to grow approximately 300% within three years and reach break-even during that time period. Reaching financial sustainability will allow Emily and MMC to scale the model to additional smallholder farmer communities, establish a long-planned women-run community nursery project that will generate income for indigenous women, launch a demonstration farm that will spark drastic improvements in farmer access to high-quality genetic material and training opportunities, and expand geographically to other countries in need of sustainable development alternatives, including Guatemala.

As an impact enterprise, Maya Mountain Cacao pays close attention to the measurable social and environmental impact in the communities where MMC works. MMC uses two methods to measure its success as a triple-bottom-line enterprise: GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Reporting System) and internally-developed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) published in an Annual Impact Report.

MMC received a four star rating in 2013. The system evaluates mission-driven enterprises on: governance; treatment of workers; impact on the community; impact on the environment; incorporation of social returns on investment into the business model.

Internal KPIs:

MMC tracks performance indicators under its triple-bottom-line mission. Information for the indicators is collected through annual socioeconomic surveys conducted at MMC’s Annual Meetings and our organic certification inspection system along with buying data. MMC surveyed 70 farmers for socioeconomic impact in 2012 and 117 farmers in 2013.

Social KPIs - # of farmers; $ increase in family income from MMC; # children attending secondary school; # loans fundraised for our farmers; $ amount of microloans distributed.

Environmental KPIs - # acres of expanded agroforestry farmland facilitated by MMC; # days of technical assistance in organic agroforestry provided to farmers; certified organic acreage; # trees planted with MMC support.

Product KPIs - #MT of cacao produced annually; average fermentation level; #products containing MMC cacao; # incoming requests for product.

The baseline for MMC’s impact KPIs was established in 2012; the data for the 2013 report is currently being processed at time of application. MMC’s Annual Impact Report, including 2012 baseline, can be found online here: http://www.mayamountaincacao.com/files/ImpactReport2012.pdf

MMC has received global recognition for its innovative model in sustainable sourcing, through its participation in the Agora Partnerships 2013 accelerator and as a finalist in the WWF-Ennovent Tropical Forests Challenge, the William James Foundation Sustainable Business Plan competition, the Return on Change startup competition, and more.

The Person

As a child, Emily was obsessed with chocolate and desserts. She authored a cookbook titled "Desserts Around the World" at age 10. Her 7th-grade science project studied the interaction of ingredients in cupcakes. It was only later in life that Emily realized the enormous social and environmental impact inherent in chocolate, sealing the deal for her intense commitment to justice and innovation in the global cocoa supply chain.

After studying sociology at Georgetown (graduation year 2007) and becoming active in social justice endeavors through internships at Amnesty International and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, Emily decided to enter Green Corps, the Field School for Environmental Organizing, for an intensive education in community organizing and environmental leadership. During her year with Green Corps, she launched four separate self-driven grassroots campaigns in the diverse cities of Mobile, AL; Chicago, IL; Houston, TX; and Portland, ME. As an example of the type of work she did with Green Corps, during her seven weeks in Mobile she built and organized a coalition of 60 fishermen, eco-tourism providers, environmental groups, and others to publicly lobby for tighter regulations on overfishing. The coalition of uncommon partners received national press attention after a press event organized by Emily; the regulations were later tightened. Emily learned many skills directly related to the entrepreneurial nature of her current work: media strategy, staff recruitment and management, fearless advocacy, and persistence in the face of seemingly impossible challenge.

After her year with Green Corps, Emily took a position at Green Century Capital Management, where she worked tirelessly as a Shareholder Advocate pressuring large corporations to improve their impact on the environment and society. While working in a cubicle in Boston pressuring large corporations to work more sustainability with their global supply chains, she realized that accepting Fair Trade and other similar certifications as “the best option” was not creating enough change and impact in developing countries. She wanted to create her own, better way of doing things. In particular, because of her deep love of chocolate, she wanted to create her own, better way of trading within the cocoa industry. An ethical sourcing logo on a chocolate bar or a commitment from a company to stop using child labor wasn't enough.

Emily’s community organizing and advocacy background informs nearly every task of every day running Maya Mountain Cacao. She plans, motivates, advocates, networks, and visualizes possibilities every day and even while she sleeps. She inspires young, driven Belizeans to find a place in her disruptive, inspirational company and develops them as leaders capable of tough decision-making and strategic planning. She is recognized as a prominent leader within the cacao industry and social networks of southern Belize, demonstrated by her appointment to the National Organic Council of Belize and several other important committees. She is establishing a clear and meaningful place for her disruptive company in the rugged organizational landscape of Belize and Central America while retaining MMC’s vision-driven culture of hard work, flexibility and innovation. MMC’s company-wide commitment to “resolve to solve” – Emily’s favorite motto from her grassroots organizing days – means the team gets things done quickly, efficiently, and strategically. MMC’s team constantly broadcast an ambitious but realistic vision of industry-wide growth, bringing new stakeholders into the work and widening the organization’s network of available resources, partners, and opportunities.

Emily is known for her wide smile, loud laughter, and extremely high levels of productive energy. Her attitude and persistence have been absolutely critical to the impact and success of MMC to date. To break a 30-year monopoly is no easy task; to break it in a country that is not your own, and as a young woman in a region historically lacking in female leadership, is quite an accomplishment. Emily started MMC at the age of 25; at the age of 28, she is more committed than ever to the vision of an environmentally, culturally, and economically sustainable cacao industry in Central America.