Some African cocoa farmers have never eaten chocolate even though the continent supplies more than half of the world’s cocoa.
Cocoa is a commodity, one of the world’s most volatile, and the quality of the farmers’ lives rise and fall with the cocoa prices. The money isn’t in the growing of cocoa, but in the processing of the cocoa into chocolate, the packaging, and the selling of the chocolate. This typically happens far from African soil. Hence you have cocoa farmers who’ve never tasted chocolate, and others like the ones I ate Hershey’s Kisses with in Ivory Coast who rarely do.
But one company, Madécasse, is challenging that model. Of the 500 chocolate brands in the U.S., Madécasse is the only one making chocolate from bean to bar entirely in Africa.
Recently, I had the chance to talk via Live Google Hangout with Madécasse CEO Tim McCollum about all things chocolate.
Tim is a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in Madagascar. He taught classes of up to 100 first graders. Tim said it was inefficient and deficient, and he wanted to make a bigger impact beyond his time in the Peace Corps.
We talked about his path from college history major to becoming a cocoa entrepreneur (watch the video to hear about his background).
“If Africa as a continent would make a little more chocolate than they do today,” Tim said, “they’d create a lot of opportunity for people.”
And that’s exactly what the bean-to-bar movement that Madécasse is a part of is trying to do.
Think of the bean-to-bar movement as being in the early stages of the craft beer movement. In fact, many are referring to it as craft chocolate.
So you have a few chocolate nerds across the country who travel the world searching for the best cocoa, and they’re willing to pay farmers a premium for it, which decommodifies cocoa. This close relationship with farmers is called “direct trade” and something many point to as an alternative to Fair Trade.
Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade
Some of the most interesting parts of my discussion with Tim were about direct trade and fair trade. Fair trade is a third-party certification that sets certain environmental and social standards on a product. Fair trade also establishes a minimum price so farmers are somewhat protected from a downswing in a commodities price, and a fair trade premium – currently about 6% of the price of cocoa goes back to farmer co-ops for them to vote on how to spend.
Direct trade is less about a certification than the nature of the relationship between the chocolate maker and the cocoa producer. The maker pays the producer directly and often meets with the farmers face-to-face.
Whenever I mention fair trade, of which I’m a fan, someone always throws out direct trade as a better alternative. It could be, but without third-party oversight and a system of checks and balances, consumers have to rely solely on the word of the chocolate maker.
Personally, I believe there is room for both fair trade and direct trade. Nestle, Hershey’s, and Cadbury could never know all of their own farmers or work directly with them, but could and are buying fair trade certified cocoa. Smaller direct trade chocolate brands are also purchasing Fair Trade Certified beans directly from farmers. In this way, fair trade and direct trade can work together so farmers earn more for the fruits of their labor and a third party ensures that social and environmental requirements are being upheld.
Madécasse’s model goes beyond direct trade and keeps more of the value of chocolate in Africa. According to Tim, Madecasse is changing the lives of 200 farmers and factory workers.
I hope more chocolate nerds follow in Tim’s and Madécasse’s footsteps. But it isn’t easy according to Tim:
“You have to be a little crazy to be doing what we are doing, making chocolate from start to finish in Africa.“