A Divine journey

Posted by Liz Foggitt, Communications Manager, Twin on 16 July 2019

This year, Divine Chocolate turns 20. I recently spent the morning with Sophi Tranchell, Divine’s CEO, to discuss achievements, hopes for the future and visions for ethical supply chains. This is part one of a two-part series.

Sophi is an impressive woman. I first met her at a talk on why Fairtrade matters at the We Feed the World exhibition last October. I’d been at Twin for a month and felt excited at starting a job I was passionate about and nervous at realising how much I had to learn about coffee, cocoa and cooperatives. During the talk, I saw Sophi is someone that will speak out about injustice and campaign for change. So, I was interested to hear about Divine’s journey.

Beginnings

In 1993, Twin worked with Dutch NGO, SNV, and cocoa farmers in Ghana to establish Kuapa Kokoo Farmers Union. Within two years, the union obtained a Fairtrade certificate for the first time. Three years after that, members voted on the proposal to start a venture with Twin to market a Fairtrade chocolate bar in the UK that was fully traceable to Kuapa Kokoo. From there, Divine was born.

Divine was something new: a Fairtrade chocolate company, owned by farmers retailing in supermarkets for mass consumption. It seemed destined to fail, but it didn’t. Sophi has been at Divine since the beginning and her passion has helped the company succeed. A priority was to create exceptional chocolate with good quality ingredients that would sell itself. And one of Sophi’s driving motivations was to create an international business where farmers get a fairer share of the wealth they’re helping to create.

Stand out successes

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A moment of pidre for Sophi was “Proving that a company that is significantly owned by cocoa farmers and pays Fairtrade price and premium…can be profitable in two of the most valuable markets in the world - the UK and the USA.” It took until 2007 to make a profit, but it was a satisfying moment. To mark the occasion, the Chairman of Divine went to Ghana and presented the President of Kuapa Kokoo with a cheque for the farmers’ dividend. 

Comfort speaking in USA for blogAnother stand out memory is travelling to Washington D.C. in 2007 with Comfort Kumeah, a 55 year old cocoa farmer, to launch Divine in the US. They arrived on February 13, ready to launch on Valentine’s Day and woke up to fine “the snow had fallen, like it only does in America.” Together, they walked through fresh snow to Capitol Hill for Comfort to give a speech. They were trying to establish a successful chocolate company while trying to catalyse an industry to change. Comfort was a long way from home, in a city, country and climate so different to her own. And she was there to talk about a chocolate company that she owns a part of - a truly life-changing experience.

 

Influencing the sector

Divine has helped to alter the discourse around chocolate. When it started, people weren’t generally aware where cocoa came from. Sophi wanted the origin and producers to be a core part of Divine’s strategy. Stories and photos of real producers were used across Divine’s marketing and communications which helped to carve a place in the market. The farmers have “been wonderful ambassadors for Divine, themselves and Fairtrade.”

Gradually, references to cocoa origins crept into the mainstream. For example, this Magnum advert uses the exotic Ecuadorian cocoa to sell ice cream. Shifts like this help to humanise the supply chain and call businesses to account when they buy cocoa from producers under unfair conditions.

Making farmers the focus 

Over the years there have been several exposés about life behind the supply chain – most commonly on child labour. In October 2000, the first story broke with the line “when you’re eating this chocolate, you’re eating my flesh.” It was shocking and provoked the governments of Ghana and Ivory Coast to address the issue.

However, it seemed as though nobody talked to the farmers. Meetings in Whitehall took place with representatives from the governments of Great Britain, Ivory Coast and Ghana, several NGOs and the industry, but no producers. In situations like this, a sense of doing things ‘to farmers' has persisted. “What Divine has tried to do, is work with farmers to try and find solutions” and show problems through their perspective.

Life in farming communities is complicated, people live in challenging conditions and problems are interconnected. Different cultural contexts need considering when seeking innovative solutions, which is why it’s important to speak to farmers. Divine has worked with Twin on programmes to increase women’s literacy, develop business plans and operational manuals and run demonstration plots where producers can learn how to improve their farming practices. Collectively, these programmes helped make Kuapa Kokoo more resilient and give farmers a more secure income.

Kuapa adult literacy project

Connecting and communicating

Although Divine has played a teaching role, the learnings go both ways. Managing a business with a unique model presents challenges and opportunities. There’s a lot of human interaction: you develop relationships with producers, you recruit interesting people that want to do things differently, you work with a board from different backgrounds. That range of stakeholders means there’s a constant need to ensure you understand each other. Over the years, Sophi has finessed her communications skills.

 There are now over 100,000 members of Kuapa Kokoo spread across 1,200 villages – so “the challenge is making the farmer ownership real. How do you involve farmers meaningfully, and not just their leaders?” Sophi attends Kuapa Kokoo’s AGM to report on Divine’s performance. She also makes the annual report accessible for everyone by incorporating it into an A2 calendar to put in the buying shed of each village. Being inclusive and ensuring that as many farmers as possible are reached is important to Sophi. Because, “Ultimately, I’m accountable to them.” 

Recently Sophi heard the phrase ‘not about us, without us’ referring to the fact local communities often aren’t represented when development projects are designed. And for her, it’s perfect – it encapsulates Divine’s approach. Farmers are what matter most – they will always be consulted, they will always be involved, and they will always be the centre of Divine’s business.