by Caletha Crawford
In the U.S., eating chocolate is often referred to as a guilty pleasure. But Divine Chocolate gives confectionery lovers a way to feed their philanthropic tendencies as well as satisfy their sweet tooth. Through a unique farmer-owned and fair trade structure, the company supports and uplifts the cocoa growers who undertake the tedious task of farming and processing the beans that go into each ounce of the various chocolate products. The dividends of ownership not only provide monetary rewards but also a sense of dignity to the collective of workers laboring to get their products to mass market.
It all started with Kuapa Kokoo, a farmer cooperative in Ghana that was formed as a licensed buying company to institute fair pricing and ethical principles for its members. Without a structure like this, West African farmers—who produce 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans—suffer from poor work environments, unjust price gouging or other exploitative practices. According to the 2002 International Institute of Tropical Agriculture report, 284,000 West African children engage in hazardous tasks on cocoa farms.
For Kuapa Kokoo farmers, however, the chocolate business is a sweeter enterprise. Fair trade—which by definition brings equity to producers in the global market—means the farmers receive just compensation for their crops ($1,600 per ton or the world price, whichever is higher, plus $150 per ton as a fair trade premium). This, in turn, results in higher revenue for Kuapa that then funds improvements to its member communities. For example, building schools has been a focus for the cooperative and a boon to the regions that previously did not have them. In this way, Kuapa is not only able to support this generation but also those to come.
The cooperative further shored up its members’ futures by electing to start its own chocolate brand, which became Divine Chocolate. In 1998, the company launched in the U.K. with funding from The Body Shop, Comic Relief, Christian Aid and the non-profit Twin Trading. Today Divine is a $25 million company in Britain, which pays dividends back to the Kuapa farmer owners. Though not a princely sum, the money earned could be enough to pay for a year of school fees for several children.
But Erin Gorman, CEO of Divine USA, said the intangible benefits of the unique structure are of equal importance. “The farmers in Kuapa have a tremendous sense of pride because they know that they’re not just cocoa farmers, they’re owners of a chocolate company and their voices will be heard,” she said. “If you’re selling to any of another dozen licensed buying companies, they can buy your cocoa or someone else’s. You don’t matter. A farmer once explained to me that that sense of not mattering made them feel like they were ‘tree minders’ and not people.”
Paul Buah, one of Kuapa’s 45,000 farmers and the elected president of the Farmer’s Union, has personally experienced the advantages of being a part of the cooperative. Buah lists access to clean water, additional schools and new mobile health clinics among them but he said owning the company means even more to him. “Apart from the dividend we receive from co-owning Divine Chocolate, it has given cocoa farmers a kind of recognition in the global chocolate industry,” he said.
Stories like these are what gave Divine an entrée into the U.K. market, which is largely controlled by one company. “The British chocolate market is very mature and very consolidated and in Britain chocolate is Cadbury,” Gorman said. “We went into the market with a fantastic story that no one had ever told up to that point about the Ghanaian farmers. And it gave consumers a way of participating in changing the terms of trade by eating chocolate. It was the first time people could be in partnership—and not in a charitable sense—with people in a developing country to create an outcome they [both] valued.”