With their discreetly elegant packaging, Original Beans’ chocolate bars can now be found on sale in leading London food shops, while the chocolate is used by a number of top chefs and so appears on the menus of a number of notable restaurants. Behind the classy packaging and the luxuriously smooth chocolate, however, is a fascinating story of how this young company is working on sustainable cacao production in some of the most deprived parts of the world.
Original Beans, it turns out, does indeed, live up to its name, bringing a new approach to the world of chocolate manufacturing. The use of the word ‘original’ neatly suggests not only a fresh approach but also hints at a focus on cacao origins and sourcing. The company’s concern with sourcing, however, extends far beyond simply choosing which variety of cocoa beans to use, working as it does directly with cacao growers to encourage sustainable production.
Philipp Kauffmann, founder of Original Beans, is a man with a vision of what cocoa production could – and indeed should – be. “I want cacao to become a virtuous crop in the sense that it doesn’t destroy the rainforest, that it adds much more economic value for small farmers and that it becomes a much better product for consumers.” A background in the world of environmental conservation before setting up Original Beans, means that Kauffmann approaches the world of chocolate as a conservation entrepreneur, using public private partnership funding to finance projects.
An Original Beans project in the African Congo – a notoriously unstable part of the world with a recent troubled history of civil war – displays the extent of the company’s commitment to offering a different model of cacao production. In 2006 a partnership between Original Beans, the East African Trading Company ESCO and agronomist Hilde de Beule, saw the development of a sustainable cacao sector in the Congo. “Our project has 13,000 farmers involved,” explains Kauffmann. “Most of these farmers are very small producers; they each have less than a hectare of land. Imagine a family of eight to nine, who own a small piece of land. They grow subsistence crops like corn and then they try and grow something to get a little bit of cash to pay a doctor or to buy a bike or send their kids of school. The amount of that cash increases if you have a cash crop commodity for the international market rather than for the local and also increases if you produce better quality and can get certification. Original Beans pays an additional sum of money for the quality of the product and the quality of ecological management and reforestation.”
In order to create not simply cacao production, which is notorious for the deforestation it causes, but sustainable cacao production, Original Beans employs a team of 50 Congolese agronomists who live among the cacao growers and work with them teaching them about best practice. “One of the most important things for us,” explains Kauffmann, “is productivity per hectare, so we’re trying to improve that in order not to need more land. To increase productivity you have to prune, so we teach the farmers how to prune. The whole project is based on organic certification, which means excluding fertilisers and pesticides. For that you have to do more intelligent farming. It’s very simple, you have to be more alert to pests; if there’s an issue you really have to be quick. You have to do a lot more soil management and mulching. You can feel it when you visit a good farm. Good cacao is shady, there are not too many insects, it smells good – these are the good signs.”
Conventional wisdom in the chocolate industry stereotypes African cacao as low-grade cacao, so to set out to produce a high quality chocolate from Congolese cacao as Original Beans have done with their Cru Virunga bar was breaking new ground. “Cacao in Congo would be considered an inferior cacao because it’s generally Forestero, but I think that shows a very primitive understanding of what cacao is,” declares Kauffmann. “The genetics themselves don’t necessarily determine the quality of the cacao and the chocolate. There are many things that create quality. We were confident that we would be able to produce a quality chocolate from African cacao.”
The Congolese beans are processed in Europe, with Kauffmann adamant that this is the best way. “You can’t produce chocolate in the tropics because it melts. I mean you can, but you have to climate-control the whole thing from start to finish which price-wise and ecologically is not a very smart way to make chocolate.” The high price of the Original Beans bars - £3.90-£4.50 – are seen by him as reflecting the realities of sustainable cacao production. “I still don’t think it’s the right price. It reflects the maximum of what consumers are prepared to pay for a bar of chocolate. It’s not what I think chocolate should cost. ”
Kauffmann has seen for himself how the Original Beans project has being welcomed by the Congolese farmers. “You have to go there to see what the dynamics are,” he says. “It’s quite fascinating. Because the opportunities there are so little, the opportunities we offer in terms of knowledge, seedlings, purchase has been taken up by people hungrily and, in particular, by the younger generation. All these people are farmers by necessity; they have to live from the land. If they had the opportunity, they would be doctors and professors. I am positive that what we’re able to is to implement a cultural DNA around cacao which is about high standards. The farmers we work with in the Congo speak of forest conservation, quality, shade management and certification, - that’s the advantage of starting from scratch.”
With his concern for the environment, Kauffmann’s big vision of cacao production is that it is a crop which can help preserve the rainforest. “The interesting thing about the chocolate industry is that it has a direct relationship to some of the poorest people in the world. These people have direct access to and control over one the world’s most precious resources on our planet, which are tropical rainforests. Chocolate is a very charismatic product with direct access to these issues of poverty and deforestation. We have a tremendous opportunity to change the paradigm of what chocolate is, how cacao is produced – this is an industry which needs a substantial, fundamental change.”
Thanks to Original Beans for the photographs used in this article.