On a snowy night in February, Comfort Kumeah, a cocoa farmer from Mim, Ghana, came all the way to Washington, D.C., just to tell a story—and to launch a new chocolate brand into the $13 billion U.S. market. The well-dressed crowd of corporate officers, Christian fair trade advocates, culinary professionals, and journalists gathered at a swanky lounge in the capital to hear Kumeah's story of how her Ghanaian agricultural cooperative, called Kuapa Kokoo, became a Divine Chocolate shareholder, its exclusive cocoa supplier, and a pioneering trade justice organization.
In addition to being a lifelong cocoa farmer, Kumeah sits on Kuapa Kokoo's farmers' union board, teaches a kindergarten class of 128 students in Mim, and is a mother of five, so she knows how to hold an audience's attention. But the youthful 59-year-old kept her enthusiastic explanation of the history and structure of Kuapa Kokoo brief, expressing her pleasure at Divine Chocolate's arrival in the United States. The gathered listeners applauded kindly before returning to their conversation and migrating to the chocolate fountain surrounded by fresh fruit and samples of Divine Chocolate bars.
Divine Chocolate's journey to the United States began when Kuapa Kokoo was founded by cocoa-farming villagers in 1993. The World Bank had just impelled the government of Ghana to allow nongovernmental trading companies to buy farmers' cocoa beans, truck them to ports, and sell them to the government cocoa agency. The change opened the door for predatory merchants and large, unpredictable price swings and put small farmers at an overwhelming disadvantage. However, Nana Frimpong Abebrese, a member of Ghana's cocoa governing board, saw that there was also the possibility of a farmer-owned trading co-op that would put growers' interests first.
Abebrese, a cocoa farmer himself, drew on his connections with Ghanaian government and farmers; he also got essential partnership and loan guarantees from Twin Trading, a fair trade company that had experience with coffee growers. Together with farmers, they planned, funded, and got a trading license for a cooperative with a sustainable business model—Kuapa Kokoo.
Kuapa Kokoo expanded farmers' opportunities and responsibilities to include weighing, bagging, and shipping their cocoa. Among other benefits, this allowed the farmers to protect themselves from fraud.
"Before the set-up of Kuapa, whatever the scale said, we had to take," Kumeah says. "No one had a say because [the government] was the only place where we could sell our cocoa. Now everything is transparent."
All of Kuapa Kokoo's officials, from the village level to the national, are elected—even now that the organization draws members from 1,124 villages across Ghana (up from an original 22 villages just 14 years ago). For each national executive election, two representatives from each village—one man and one woman—vote for board membership and other offices. Elections are supervised by Ghana's election commission, and each ballot features pictures of the candidates for office. In a country with an overall literacy rate of 75 percent, and just 67 percent for women, the pictorial ballots are critical to ensuring fairness.
"It's incredible to see that level of organization in a farmers' organization," says Erin Gorman, CEO of Divine Chocolate USA, who observed the election of national executive officers in July 2006. In addition to ensuring representation and accountability, says Gorman, Kuapa Kokoo's democratic principles have empowered women.
"They've not just helped women get into leadership posts, they've also done a good job of educating women about why it's important to participate. Women see that if they don't participate, then when decisions are made they might not have a say in the way resources are distributed." Of 20 national posts up for election in 2006, female candidates won 12.
DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP is critical for Kuapa Kokoo because, among other reasons, the cooperative manages financial resources that impact the welfare of all of the villages it represents. In accordance with fair trade certification requirements, the cooperative receives a $150 bonus for each ton of cocoa, which is deposited in the Kuapa Kokoo farmers' trust, overseen jointly by elected leaders and representatives from foreign trade partners.
Kuapa Kokoo's farmer-oriented democratic model has enabled it to grow at a sustainable pace to where it now produces 1 percent of all cocoa in the world. Unfortunately, only 2 to 4 percent of Kuapa Kokoo's cocoa has fair trade buyers such as Divine Chocolate.
Kumeah has seen even such limited funds put to good use across Ghana.
"We build schools, and we provide good drinking water to families who lack those amenities," says Kumeah. "Also we provide toilet facilities, and mobile clinics whereby doctors are sent out to the villages to pick up farmers who can't come to the cities to attend hospital." Kumeah reports that all children in Mim have access to education, and that infant mortality in the village is low.
If Kuapa could sell more chocolate at fair trade rates, it could bring even more assistance to a country that still has an infant mortality rate nearly 10 times that of the United States and a nationwide poverty rate of more than 30 percent.
Kuapa Kokoo profits not only from selling the commodity of cocoa, but also from directly entering the chocolate market. At their annual meeting in 1997, the organization's farmers voted to branch out from cocoa farming into chocolate production and sales. A coalition of nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and development agencies—including The Body Shop, Twin Trading, Christian Aid, and Comic Relief—invested in Kuapa Kokoo's venture. As a result, the Day Chocolate Company was founded in the U.K. in 1998. It was the first and, to date, only direct entry into the confectionary industry by fair trade certified cocoa farmers. With the additon of stock donated to Kuapa Kokoo by The Body Shop in 2006, the farmers now own 47 percent of the chocolate company. Two representatives from Kuapa Kokoo sit on the company's board of directors.
Day Chocolate developed the Divine Chocolate brand for the £4 billion per year British chocolate market ($7 billion at today's exchange rate). Since its first chocolate bar hit the shelves, the company has developed a product line that includes dark chocolate, white chocolate, and bars with fillings, which can be found in every major grocery chain in Britain. Day eventually changed its name to Divine Chocolate. The company registered after-tax profits of more than £400,000 (slightly more than $800,000) in 2004 and 2005.
LAUNCHING DIVINE Chocolate USA in February brought Erin Gorman and Comfort Kumeah together with investors and media in Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York. Among the stakeholders present for the Washington events were representatives of Lutheran World Relief, which—with faith-based partners SERRV International and Oikocredit—has invested $280,000 in Divine Chocolate USA.
According to Kattie Somerfeld, fair trade projects coordinator at Lutheran World Relief, involvement with Divine Chocolate is not only biblical (citing Isaiah 65:21-25), but also rooted in the theology of Martin Luther. Somerfeld cites Luther's 1520 "Sermon on Trade and Usury" as inspiration:
On the trading companies I ought to say a good deal, but the whole subject is such a bottomless pit of avarice and wrongdoing that there is nothing in it that can be discussed with a good conscience. Who is so stupid that he cannot see that the trading companies are nothing but pure monopolies? ... They control all commodities, deal in them as they please, and practice without concealment all the tricks that have been mentioned. They raise or lower prices at their pleasure. They oppress and ruin all the small businessmen, like the pike the little fish in the water, just as if they were lords over God's creatures and immune from all the laws of faith and love.
Somerfeld says that in addition to Lutheran World Relief's investment in Divine Chocolate, it plans to mobilize its constituency and allied church bodies to educate members about trade justice and generate word-of-mouth publicity for Divine Chocolate among tens of thousands of Lutherans.
Commitments like this from Lutheran World Relief will address one of Divine Chocolate's major obstacles. Namely, "to change the hearts and minds of chocolate buyers, and do it without a huge marketing budget," according to Gorman. However, Gorman also looks forward to replicating Divine Chocolate's U.K. model, where its product penetrated the mass market, rather than remaining a niche or specialty item.
"At the end of the day," says Gorman, "our hope is that we can gain a share of the mainstream market, which means we offer a chocolate that tastes like people expect chocolate to taste, that is available at an affordable price."
Dan Nejfelt is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and former editorial student intern at Sojourners. For more on Divine Chocolate, visit www.divinechocolate.com. For more on Lutheran World Relief's program, visit www.lwr.org/chocolate.