As the reigning Queen of Candy, Dylan Lauren knows a thing or two about chocolate. So it's only fitting that the Dylan's Candy Bar founder—and daughter of designer Ralph Lauren—would join the nonprofit Heifer International on a trip to Ecuador, the undisputed cocoa center of the world. There, Lauren met with local farmers in Manabi to help produce a more bountiful cacao yield, meet with women's groups who have pooled their money to invest in agricultural developments, and still managed to have left time in her schedule to sample some of the local sweets.
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Here, she shares exclusive behind-the-scenes photos from her trip.
WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
"Here I am in Calceta visiting the Fortaleza del Valle's gathering center to see how cacao is processed, fermented, dried, tested, and shipped around the world. I even surveyed the beans, which will eventually be turned into one of the world's most beloved treats, to ensure they were of the highest quality. I was excited to learn how Heifer is working to help the environment and improve the sustainability of cacao-growing organizations in the coastal and amazon regions of Ecuador. I've been to dozens of candy and chocolate factories, but I have never seen anything as interesting as this!"
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
"I enjoyed the Passing on the Gift ceremony, where local farmers who have benefitted from Heifer's programs pass on their knowledge of farming to families that are just starting out with the organization. I was particularly inspired by how appetizing and beautiful the seeds of fruits, plants, and vegetables could be. I loved this presentation atop a brilliant Ecuadorian textile."
DANCING THE DAY AWAY
"Earth Day in Ecuador is a major celebration, and we marked the holiday with various women's groups and their communities by watching local dancers. I especially loved learning about the tradition and culture of Ecuador through this richly colorful and energetic dance performance. I hope to play some of the songs in my stores."
"I'm in awe of Eduardo, one of the many farmers behind the magic of making it possible for us to enjoy chocolate bars back at home. I was enjoying learning first-hand how cocoa is grown, fertilized, and collected—and getting to taste the fruit that surrounds the fresh beans straight from the tree was a real treat."
"We spent a day exploring the mangroves in Esmeraldas where women spend seven hours per day in the mud digging for shellfish to sell in town. This woman was beaming with pride as she showed us the shellfish she had just caught. I loved her 'roll up your sleeves and get dirty' attitude and her tirelessness of finding as much shellfish as possible to provide for her family. I also loved that, on our boat ride back, she changed her clothes, wiped off the mud, and put on earrings for her arrival, so she could arrive back at the port 'with dignity.'"
THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
"These women call themselves the 'Warrior Women of Galera.' With help from Heifer, they rose up with tremendous strength and courage to overcome the odds and work together to own and operate a restaurant. I hope tourists flock to it because it has a stunning ocean view and delicious food. I immediately bonded with these women over our love of running a business centered around eating. We cooked dinner together, and they showed me several tips in the kitchen—the food we ate here was divine! They taught me what 'women in power' really means, and it was great to see them in charge and feeling empowered."
WOMAN'S BEST FRIEND
"This dog literally followed me from town all the way down the beach. I was heartbroken at first thinking this dog was amongst hundreds of strays that are victims of hunger or abuse, like I had unfortunately witnessed in several parts of South America. However, I was put at ease when my new Ecuadorian friends showed me their tremendous respect for all animals. Treating animals with love and kindness is so important to me, which is why I founded my foundation, Dylan's Candy BarN, that supports animal welfare organizations in need of help. No matter what little food the people there had, they shared it with the stray dogs and understood their value as a pet or best friend."
"I am in the community of Estero de Platano, looking out at the ruins of homes, boats, and cemeteries destroyed by the massive earthquake that hit the area last year. It is very shocking to see the destruction in person, as opposed to on the news through photos and videos. The people here who have shared their stories and ambition to rebuild are filled with peacefulness, sweetness, and hope. Their positive thinking is a reminder that anything can be overcome with the support and love from others."
"In Ecuador, I taste-tested the artisanal sweets prepared by eight different women's groups in a mini contest. It was so hard to choose a winner (it was all extraordinary!), but afterward, all the contestants celebrated each other's work through cheers, song, and dance. I bonded with Mariana Jara, pictured here, who headed the Galera restaurant, not just because her dessert was one of my favorites, but also because her entrepreneurial spirit was impressive. Her boundless energy was inspirational—she was 60 going on 20! And while she had very little, she carried herself with pride, confidence, and jubilation that I hope rubs off on me."
FOOD FOR A CAUSE
"I was very impressed with the leadership of the Union of Rural Organizations of Esmeraldas (UOCE), a collection of grassroots organizations that empowers women through gastronomic entrepreneurship, agriculture on diverse farms, fishing, and community tourism. I was blown away by the bountiful array of incredibly delicious and beautifully prepared food each restaurant had that she helped start. It tasted just as good as it looked! And I was taken aback by the generosity of these people to share everything with us."