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Mars: Supporting Indonesia’s Smallholders Through Applied Research

As the demand for the raw material in the region has surpassed local growers’ ability to supply cocoa beans, Southeast Asia’s cacao farmers have much to gain from improved agricultural practices and increased productivity. While there is a role for research to play here, research into cacao cultivation and effective knowledge transfer is often underfunded, meaning that valuable findings are rarely applied at the farm level.

In the Grow Asia Learning Alliance (GALA) “Navigating Business Partnerships” training held in Jakarta on 3-4 December 2019, Grow Asia invited Fay Fay Choo, Asia Cocoa Director for Mars Incorporated to - as one of the pioneers of applied, collaborative, pre-competitive research in cocoa - share some insights on how to bridge this gap. This article is a summary of the key points raised.

Mars started its journey in Indonesia in 1996 when they established the first foreign cocoa processing factory in Makassar, Sulawesi. The company has grown significantly over the years, and since 2012, Mars has supported more than 50,000 cocoa farmers in Indonesia. The company has two Cacao Research Centers (CRC) and a Cocoa Academy in Sulawesi, which focuses on improving the quality and productivity of cocoa through breeding superior clones, promoting integrated pest management, better soil management, and promoting diversified farming systems.

Image 1. Fay Fay Choo, Asia Cocoa Director for Mars sharing her experiences in collaborating with research institutions in Indonesia during the training in Jakarta on 4 December 2019.

There are two models that Mars has used in collaborating with research institutions. The first model is to work on the research together, which is more collaborative in nature as it leverages on each partners’ strengths to solve the problem together. The other model is to fund the research and discuss IP ownership with the research partner. Since their early days in Indonesia, Mars has adopted the first model of working with the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI), focusing on a cacao breeding program in Sulawesi. Today, they are working with other partners from research, civil society, and other businesses in the Sustainable Cocoa Production Project (SCPP) – a multi-stakeholder initiative that focuses on improving the productivity of cocoa farmers in Indonesia.

Fay shared that their success in applying research onto cacao farms is largely attributable to their investment in “cocoa doctors” - cocoa entrepreneurs who champion best practices on the ground. By training these cocoa doctors through the Cocoa Academy, Mars can provide advice and coaching to farmers directly in their villages, ensuring that new techniques or research products are applied correctly on the ground.

Fay also shared that to develop lasting partnerships, Mars had to identify common pain points shared by different stakeholders and use that as the basis for collaboration, which in this case is the low productivity among cacao farmers. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the business to create the right incentives to promote the right behaviour among farmers that they work with.

Ultimately, as a business, you need to be very aware of the fact that answers to your business challenges could lie outside the company, which is why Mars invests in open innovation and promotes collaborative research with local research institutions in the countries in which they operate. Their model for facilitating collaborative research has led to positive impact for thousands of smallholder farmers in Indonesia, while ensuring more high-quality cocoa supply for the business. It is a model that promotes collaboration and focuses on increasing the size of the pie for all stakeholders involved.

This is the second of a two-part blog series covering the Grow Asia Learning Alliance (GALA) Navigating Business Partnerships Training. The first part, which describes the training in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in greater detail, can be found here.

The GALA program is funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which is designed to help knowledge producers in ASEAN – such as research institutes, universities and think tanks – connect with agribusinesses to scale the impact of agriculture research in the region. For more information on the GALA program, contact Nadia at or visit the GALA page on our website.

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