London’s history of trade – the foundation for its wealth – was often exploitative. Its benefits were enjoyed by mostly the wealthy elite. And at one point in history, chocolate was at the center of this machine of injustice.
St. James’s Square in the late 17th century was notorious for its elite social clubs, characterized by depravity, and called chocolate houses. As a recent article in the Telegraph describes, “Harvested in appalling conditions by African slaves in Jamaica, chocolate was thus consumed in one of the most exclusive addresses in Europe by the crème de la crème of British society, cementing chocolate’s association with decadence and luxury in the popular imagination.”
Just a few blocks away from the clubs around St. James’s Square is the Lansdowne Club. Last Thursday, 9 March, Divine Chocolate hosted an event here celebrating the women behind today’s growing fair trade chocolate industry. “What is it about Women and Chocolate?” was one of many events across London last week celebrating International Women’s Day. With a panel of speakers, the event told how Divine has changed the story of chocolate not only in London, but the world.
Because chocolate is accessible to a wider audience today, everyone has a memory with chocolate, probably even from childhood. Sophi Tranchell, the CEO of Divine, likes to say, “Chocolate gives you a means to open a conversation.”
This conversation is about equality in the chocolate supply-chain.
Divine has recently added their “Empowering women cocoa farmers” logo to their best-selling bar, the 70% dark. This is because, in an industry caught up by the destructive demands of capitalism and consumerism, Divine’s chocolate is more than just good chocolate. Women are integral to the production of chocolate. According to research presented by several of the speakers, women farmers are often overlooked in the sharing of information and therefore the decision-making in the cocoa-farming world.
Sadly, this story is not new. Women’s inequality is at the core of the problem of global poverty. And Gender Equality is Goal 5 of the UN’s Global Goals––supposed to take 100 years to achieve completely.
Divine, technically, is owned by its farmers. Kuapa Kokoo, a farmer’s co-operative in Ghana owns the biggest share in Divine. Many of Divine’s efforts, decisions and profits go toward empowering Kuapa Kokoo’s women farmers. Not only are there directed streams of income from Divine, but Divine gives access to training, literacy and numeracy classes, and even speaking engagements, to the women farmers. At this London event, two Ghanaian representatives were present to speak about their experience. Linda Berchi and Victoria Boakyewaa both spoke near-fluent English about their leadership roles within Kuapa Kokoo––living evidence of empowerment. “Chocolate is your pleasure. Cocoa is my life. So buy more chocolate!” shared Linda Berchie.
The event included talks from other change-makers, too. The event chair, Kristy Leissle, researches the politics, economics and cultures of the global chocolate industry. Erich Sahan is a policy advisor for Oxfam and helped launch their effective Behind the Brands campaign. Melinda Bohannon works for the UK government on issues of eliminating global economic inequality.
Several of the speakers spoke about how the destructive consumer model of today can’t continue. It is a model that places value on getting “more for cheaper,” as Stephanie Barrientos, a leading academic on gender and global production, explained.
Chocolate, and Divine specifically, is leading the agricultural business down the fair trade path. It’s a direction that Sophi Tranchell believes we all need to go. “Inequality doesn’t work,” she said as she closed the event with her talk.
Divine sales have been extremely successful in both the UK and the US––two of the most competitive markets in the world. This is uplifting news, because these markets are the exact place where change will need to happen.
“You can’t make people cooperate. You can’t make people be empowered,” Tranchell added. People ultimately have to make the decision to be empowered themselves, but they do need the platform to step onto. What Divine has been doing over the last 20 years is create platforms. They’ve created platforms for the women farmers of Kuapa Kokoo to have a say, not only in the chocolate farming industry, but in their own futures. Divine also has created a platform for consumers to choose which supply-chain story to buy into: one that overlooks and abuses populations of people, or one that is fair and uplifts the overlooked.
While the name of the event may have been a little misleading, the message was clear: women, and all buyers, have an important part to play. By choosing to buy Divine, and others with powerful fair trade stories like theirs, you chose their values. By buying Divine, you validate their story as the right one. And it seems like this is how change happens. “Owned by cocoa farmers. Made for chocolate lovers,” is their brand. “Empowering women farmers” is their story.