Q&A: The managing director of Divine Chocolate on personalizing supply chains

Based in London, Divine Chocolate was the first-ever fair trade chocolate bar aimed at the mass market. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

In 1993, a group of cocoa farmers formed the cooperative Kuapa Kokoo to ensure they did not lose out from the liberalization of the cocoa market in Ghana. In 1997, the farmers voted to set up their own company so they could benefit from the growing value of chocolate. And in 1998, Divine Chocolate was born, with Kuapa Kokoo farmers owning 44 percent of the company.

Today, it is not uncommon to see the country where cacao is grown mentioned on a bar of chocolate, as brands respond to growing interest among consumers in the farmers behind these products. But that was not always the case. Based in London, Divine Chocolate was the first ever fair trade chocolate bar aimed at the mass market, and its farmer-owned model holds lessons for the global development community.

“The thing that Divine does that’s different virtually from anybody else is because the farmers own us, it’s not our choice to carry on having a relationship with them,” Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Divine, told Devex from her office in London. “It’s actually core to who we are.”

Tranchell spoke about supply chains, the fair trade movement, how to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and many other issues. Below is an excerpt of her interview, edited for length and clarity.

Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Divine Chocolate

You talk about the importance of personalizing supply chains. Can you expand on how Divine Chocolate has made this approach more mainstream in the chocolate industry?

We made the problem visible.

Now you sort of feel as if everybody talks about cocoa farmers, and everybody knows where their chocolate comes from. But in 1999, when I joined the company, I would ask a chocolate buyer in a supermarket where the chocolate came from, and they sort of looked at me like “Who’s the crazy lady?”

They might have said Switzerland, Belgium, Birmingham, where Cadbury is based. And I was saying, “No, I mean do you know where the cocoa comes from?” And they would look at me like they had no idea. And I asked, “Do you know what cacao looks like, on the tree?” No idea. And I asked, “Do you know the plight of the farmers who grow it?” No idea.

We changed the way people thought about chocolate. What I hope we have done is personalized it.

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If you went to your corner shop and the person in your corner shop couldn’t afford to send their child to school and had bare feet, you would be embarrassed. And you would want to do something about it, or you wouldn’t go to the shop. We’ve tried to do something about it for chocolate.

There are a lot of very good chocolate companies that have come up in our wake, and big industry is also doing good things now for a number of reasons. If you look at Cadbury converting its dairy milk to fair trade in 2009, that was a big deal. That was satisfying to us but also challenging for us from a commercial perspective.

In Britain, lots of public facilities are run by local authorities, and they had committed to making sure there were fair trade choices. When Cadbury converted, that fair trade choice could be Cadbury. Before, we were one of the beneficiaries of being one of the few fair trade choices.

But we set out to change the way the chocolate industry runs. So in a sense this is exactly what we wanted to happen. Because we wanted to improve the lives of cocoa farmers at scale.

In the United States, there is fair trade International, Fair Trade USA, Fair for Life, to name a few certifications. In the UK, there seems to be more unity in the fair trade movement. What impact does that have?

In Britain, the fair trade movement has not splintered, and we’ve all hung in behind it.

There are a number of social enterprises and mission driven companies who do fair trade. Cafédirect was a real trailblazer and is still here. There is Liberation, which is similar to us but works in nuts, and there is a company called Tropical Wholefoods focused on dried fruits, to name a few.

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We are companies that have fair trade as core to our mission. Collectively we are called the fair trade Leaders. Since 2000 we have been meeting on a quarterly basis about our work to improve the livelihoods of farmers.

The fair trade Town movement started in 2000 in Britain. There are now 600 fair trade Towns in Britain. And there are fair trade schools, fair trade churches, fair trade universities. And by hanging behind one brand the awareness level of fair trade in Britain is something like 80 percent.

Earlier this month, you launched a report on Divine Chocolate’s relationship with Kuapa Kokoo. What were some of the takeaways?

The most important takeaway was how to ensure all the things that help farmers are accessible to women as well as men.

Until relatively recently, when people spoke about farmers, they meant men. And when they talked about women, it was usually an add on: “Oh, what can we do for women?

And I’m saying that if you actually state that we’re supporting women and men farmers, make sure you’re collecting disaggregated data in your interventions — which are about training, inputs and credits — so you can really tell whether you’re delivering them for women and men.

Then you can start to see you aren’t, and then you can ask the question: Why?

What is your message for the global development community when it comes to what approaches improve the lives of cocoa farmers?

Businesses have a continual pressure to deliver what you said you are going to deliver, and people are looking at whether you delivered it. I don’t think NGOs have the same pressure.

I really dislike a three year intervention. So what are you going to do now — are you going to work somewhere else on something else with someone else? Are you not even curious what happened a year later?

I met lots of these farmers 20 years ago, and we have grown up and grown old together, and we are seeing the impact of short-term interventions.

For a while, the Gates Foundation was funding things such as cocoa. There was an intervention with the farmers I work with through Culturing New Frontiers in Agriculture. And that intervention was successful.

And now the Gates Foundation is onto core crops — food crops — so they won’t go into cash crops. And I’m saying, “But you learned something. You said it was a pilot. You raised farmers’ expectations. And now you’re onto the next thing. Have you even told them you’re onto the next thing? Have you allowed those farmers to participate in that scheme?”

I sort of feel there’s a disrespect in terms of the communication flow.

When times get hard, they can choose to be less supportive of farmers, whereas we don’t have that choice.

There are two things that happen when you are an organization owned by a farmer. One is you do create income streams, and you are cognizant of what creates income stream for farmers. The other is the flow of information. Obviously farmers own the company and have to have information. We have farmers on our board and quarterly board meetings. I go to their annual general meeting each year to report to them on how their company is doing. And we produce a version of our annual report that can go up in each of the visuals so they have the financials and the core of the annual report in every village we work with.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.