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AN UNLIKELY START
How does someone working in quantitative analytics for financial markets end up running a social enterprise making ethically sourced chocolate? Ask Joy Batashoff Thaler, founder of CocoaCompassion, and she’ll tell you that for her, it was all about having the courage to believe in her own voice and the unwavering desire to help others do the same, and about making non-linear connections between family systems, community, values, decisions, behaviors, and economical and environmental factors. She envisioned how these connections could be mapped and molded in order to address limitations faced by individuals, families, communities, and teams. Oh, and this was all going to be accomplished through a beloved comfort food with a bittersweet story, chocolate. Don’t see the connection yet? We’ll get there, but first, a primer on chocolate, its history, and the multi-generational impact the industry has had on millions of smallholder cacao farmers.
THE BITTERSWEET BACKSTORY
While you may think of chocolate as a sweet, smooth, decadent treat molded into a bar and wrapped in foil, it goes through many steps—and often many hands—to get to you like that (as a side note, not all chocolate is smooth, and that’s ok, too). Like virtually everything we eat, it starts with a plant and with farmers: Theobroma cacao, or "food of the gods.” This singular tropical plant is native to Central and South America but is now cultivated in tropical regions 20 degrees north and south of the equator (the “Cacao Belt”) worldwide, with most production (though not most processing or consumption) taking place in West Africa. Nutritionally, cacao is brimming with antioxidants, flavonoids, and minerals like magnesium, calcium, and iron.
Cacao trees produce large pods, each of which contains 30-50 seeds (beans) that are the edible part of the plant. Once the cacao pods are ripe (unlike crops like apples, cacao ripens year round and therefore requires constant monitoring), they are manually harvested and split open with a machete. Then the beans are quickly removed, awkwardly transported (infrastructure is a challenge), fermented, dried, cleaned, and packed. At this point, sacks of cacao beans are most often sold to intermediaries, who then sell them to exporters, who sell them to processors, and so on . . . In other words, it’s a very long supply chain from bean to finished product, and the smallholder farmers (40 to 50 million of them worldwide) who grow cacao usually get only a tiny fraction of the proceeds generated along the way. In addition to unlivable incomes for farmers, the chocolate industry is plagued by child and exploitative labor and unsustainable growing practices. (This information on chocolate comes from makechocolatefair.org; find this and more resources at the bottom.)
Joy first learned about the harsh realities of cacao farming and chocolate production when her work in finance turned to the soft commodities futures market (coffee and cacao being her favorites). That work exposed her to people who cared about and dug deep to understand the stakeholders all along the supply chain. Having heard of the exploitation of children and other injustices in the cacao industry, she couldn’t turn back. She set out to start peeling the onion and making some very non-traditional connections, the “end result” of which (knowing this is by no means the finish line of the journey for Joy) was CocoaCompassion, a business that does things radically differently, creating not only delicious products, but also connection, justice, value, and opportunity for marginalized populations locally and globally.
CHOCOLATE AS A FORCE FOR CHANGE
Fast forward to today, and CocoaCompassion sources single origin, fairer-than-fair-trade cacao for their "bean to bar" products. And while Joy makes chocolate (really good chocolate, we might add), she also makes it very clear that her vision is about systems that are so much bigger than a single product. Her drive to walk alongside people, especially youth and those who are vulnerable, and help them find their voice, their value, and their seat at the table, shows up in everything CocoaCompassion does. 20% of all profits are reinvested in underserved communities to build high-value skills and resources: 10% locally, to a social, economic, or environmental initiative and 10% to a cacao growing community initiative.
CocoaCompassion’s sourcing frameworks aim to respect all stakeholders involved and create economic and social benefit along the entire (short) supply chain. They source cacao primarily from Tanzania through a partnership with Kokoa Kamili, a fermentary that purchases beans directly from farmers, without any agents/middlemen. Though Kokoa Kamili buys “wet” cocoa, straight out of the farmers' pods before fermenting or drying, they still pay more than the usual middlemen, meaning farmers get paid more, quicker, for less work. Farmers can use the time and effort they would’ve spent fermenting and drying beans to tend their cacao trees, work on their farms, start a small business, or just enjoy a little down time. Life in a rural African village is hard, with household members engaged in hard physical labor from before dawn until after sunset—any extra time can lead to extra income or a better quality of life.
CocoaCompassion’s transparent supply chains and trusted partnerships don’t just apply to their cacao. Their primary sweetener, panela (unprocessed cane sugar from Colombia) comes from NelaNature, another woman-owned business in Baltimore. Their sea salt is hand-foraged by Joy’s business partner, Chef Chris Amendola, owner and executive chef of Foraged.Eatery in Hampden, Baltimore. When you enjoy any of CocoaCompassion’s products, from chocolate bars and bites to paleo marshmallows, or drinking chocolate to cacao nibs, you can know that you are forming another point in a long line of positive connections.
We love working with mission-aligned companies like CocoaCompassion to bring sustainable, ethically sourced, healthy food (ok, and also treats!) to your table.
MORE RESOURCES ON CHOCOLATE
Photos courtesy of Cocoa Compassion.