As a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, it is not often that I get involved on the trading side. But since early last year, I have been working with the UK-based organization Twin & Twin Trading, whose vision is development through trade, facilitating specialty chocolate market access for cocoa farmer associations in Africa. That means I help farmer groups to promote and sell their cocoa to specialty buyers—who may be paying premium prices for quality, and who may make these farmer groups visible to chocolate shoppers by putting their names on single origin bars.
Apart from Madagascar bars, it is relatively rare in the US to find specialty, single origin chocolate that uses African cocoa, at least compared with bars that use cocoa from Central or South America, or the Caribbean. I started writing about the invisibility of West African cocoa in premium chocolate some years ago; little did I think at the time that I would be part of a team helping to promote the region to specialty buyers.
But one container at a time, that’s what we have been doing, starting with Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations in Sierra Leone. With assistance from Twin and other partners, farmers in four chiefdoms on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park have organized into three associations to sell their cocoa: Malema chiefdom, Gaura chiefdom, and Tunkia and Koya chiefdoms, which, being a bit smaller than the others, joined together to sell their cocoa. Together, these farmer associations are working to conserve the Gola Rainforest, which is home to many threatened and endemic species, including the elusive pygmy hippo, and to strengthen their cocoa business practices.
Twin and its partners in Sierra Leone have been working for several years with these farmer associations to provide agricultural training, and to support best practices around cocoa harvest, fermentation, drying, and storage. My role has involved building capacity for farmer associations and the Gola staff around marketing, so that they can strategize from an informed position when negotiating with buyers.
When I started this work, bags of cocoa were sitting in the Gola warehouse in Kenema. Knowing we had superior quality cocoa and a unique opportunity to launch Sierra Leone onto the specialty cocoa map, we aimed high—the first container, the team agreed, should be pitched to the US craft market. To the best of our knowledge, no craft maker in the US had produced a single origin specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone before. As confident as I felt in the cocoa, though, I wasn’t sure if any of them would be willing to consider it. In my work over the past fifteen years, I have found that, apart from a very few exceptions (such as John Kehoe and Gary Guittard at Guittard Chocolate, or the folks at Tcho Chocolate), people are generally dismissive, wary, or simply uninterested in West African cocoa for any kind of premium product.
But some people in the chocolate industry are starting to think—and act—differently when it comes to African origins, and especially West Africa. In our conversations about Gola cocoa, these individuals spoke with humility, recognizing that they had a lot to learn about West Africa’s vast cocoa farming systems, and they were eager to begin. Among them were Greg D’Alesandre, who sources for Dandelion Chocolate, and Gino Dalla Gasperina, who founded Meridian Cacao Company. I had a lot to learn from them, too—and all of us had something to learn from the people growing the cocoa and the Gola staff who work with those farmers. Greg and Gino decided to visit Sierra Leone, to see the farms, learn about the trainings, and discuss priorities and visions with the Gola team, as buyers and sellers of cocoa.
And then Greg made the decision to buy the cocoa, which meant Dandelion would make the first ever Gola Rainforest Chocolate bar! Will you forgive me for saying how very proud I am, how even now I have tears and goosebumps, remembering the collective effort it took, and from my gratitude to everyone for working with such dedication and tirelessness, such faith in Gola cocoa? So many people gave this their all, from the cocoa farmers through the Gola buying officers, the agricultural extension team at Jula Consultancy, the trading team at Twin, and right up to Ron Sweetser at Dandelion, who developed the profile for the bar—and, by doing so with enormous care and love, showed everyone just what Sierra Leone Gola Rainforest cocoa can do as a single origin craft chocolate bar.
I will leave it to others to give their assessment of the chocolate, as my own (five star) review of the (most profoundly chocolate) bar (I have ever tasted) will necessarily sound biased at this point. But if you are one of those people who likes chocolate, I do think the Gola Rainforest bar might be one that pleases you (so much that you buy out all the stock in your local shop and eat it for breakfast and create fashion accessories out of the wrappers).
Greg and the team at Dandelion took the first opportunity to share the chocolate with the women and men who had grown the cocoa. The three Gola Rainforest cocoa farmer associations held their season review last week, and I traveled to Sierra Leone to participate. Part of the work was to celebrate the successes of last season, and part of it was to strategize for the coming season. For this, I led a session on chocolate markets, outlining the different categories of chocolate and what advantages and disadvantages there would be to selling into each value chain.
We talked too about the relationship between Gola and Dandelion, and with other potential buyers, and what they had discussed with Greg and Gino when they visited. I showed maps to chart the journey the Gola cocoa had taken once it left Sierra Leone, and photos of Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory, so that the farmers could see where it was manufactured into chocolate.
Staff members had taken turns translating my talk into Mende. But when I said that theirs was the first specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone in the US craft market, no translation was needed—the cheers and smiles were immediate!
Then it was time to share the Dandelion Gola Rainforest chocolate bar.
So much of my teaching, research, and writing has been about the negative stereotypes that persist about Africa, and how these damage or undermine so many possibilities for real, material change. Superior cocoa grows in Sierra Leone, and farmers work hard to cultivate and process it. It is not easy to swim against the tide of negative stories about Sierra Leone and indeed all of West Africa. But this is necessary work.
Do the people who work so hard every day to grow excellent cocoa, and who buy and haul and store it, who steward it until it sails away on a container ship—do they not deserve to have their experiences, their labor, their cocoa recognized and esteemed? We all want to be seen, and for our work to be valued.
I think that even more than when they tasted the chocolate, when the farmers, buying officers, and agricultural extension staff saw the words “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone” on the Dandelion bar wrapper, they felt what they had achieved. I saw people’s faces light up with pride. I hope that there is more of the same to come.
It is my privilege and joy to work with the farmers and association executives in Gaura, Malema, Tunkia, and Koya chiefdoms; with the staff (especially Björn Horvath and Katie Sims in Kenema) at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked for decades to conserve and protect the Gola Rainforest and whose idea it was to start a cocoa business in the forest edge communities in the first place; my excellent colleagues at Twin & Twin Trading (especially Hannah Davis, who managed Twin’s contributions from the start, and Deborah Bickler, who kept us all going); Gino at Meridian Cacao, who has been generously helping to build capacity and cocoa expertise for both Twin and Gola; and, of course, Greg and the team at Dandelion Chocolate. Thank you for bringing Gola Rainforest Chocolate into the world.