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Using Chocolate To Pull People Out Of Poverty

Africa makes a lot of chocolate, but not a lot of chocolate bars, which are assembled in America. That means the money from selling them stays in America. Brooklyn’s Madecasse is attempting to change that by creating a vibrant chocolate culture in Madagascar.

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Africa produces 70% of the world’s chocolate and 60% of the world’s vanilla crop, yet the continent makes just 1% of finished chocolate bars, with very little profit getting back to the farmers themselves. Now, an innovative company is disrupting the market and using limitations to their advantage to make some of the world’s best chocolate—and make a difference in Madagascar.

Madecasse started in 2008 to do just that. It was started by former Peace Corps volunteers who had seen the farmers in action, and who knew the global marketplace brought just a small percentage of the profits from chocolate back to the farms.

The company, which was one of [i]Fast Company[/i]'s Most Innovative Companies in 2011, has recently moved to make the chocolate culture of Madagascar even stronger: It rediscovered species of cocoa that were previously thought to be extinct. The company says that the discovery highlights the plight of the country, which is an environmental hotspot where 80% of flora and fauna are found nowhere else in the world. Cocoa farms can contribute to conservation practices because they provide shade and are often a buffer zone close to protected areas.

"We’ve gotten good at turning disadvantages to our advantage," explains Tim McCollum, one of Madecasse’s founders. "Our model and our philosophy mandates that everything in our chocolate is going to come from Madagascar. That has forced us to be more innovative, and seek some innovative flavors that haven’t been done before, like pink pepper and citrus in a chocolate bar."

Producing a finished product in a country like Madagascar has brought with it unique challenges. McCollum described what it was like to work with rural farmers in Madagascar to get the cocoa. "The chocolate inside the wrapper is as good or better as chocolate made in Europe, but we’re dealing with farmers in the countryside, not a lot of paved roads or electricity, and most are illiterate."

The company works with them to make the beans, and they have to explain nuances in flavor that come down to protocols in drying the bean. "We’re trying to explain what a fruity aftertaste is, and why they need to ferment the beans for 6 days, but most of the cocoa farmers have never even tasted chocolate," he says.

"If you really want to impact, get beyond raw materials," explains McCollum. "We knew intuitively, if Africa was producing the raw material, it could make the final product." When Madecasse’s chocolate bars are sold at Whole Foods or other retailers, 40% of the profits go back to the countries of origin.

"It’s a new way of thinking and looking at chocolate, which is an old, established industry. We want to focus on shaking things up for change, rather than nibbling around the edges," says McCollum.

Sometimes, creative thinking can turn apparent obstacles into benefits. Madecasse works with a local printing press to make the labels for its chocolate, and then the chocolate is packaged by hand (unlike most big chocolate companies, that use a machine to place each bar in a package).

That machine doesn’t exist in Madagascar, says McCollum, but that hasn’t slowed them down. "Our hand-packaging in little envelopes probably sets us apart in sales and branding. And the only reason we made that decision was because we didn’t have access to a machine. The fewer options we have, the more creative we are."