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In October of 2007, Cecilia Appianim (at left) came to Green America's Washington, DC Green Festival to share the story of her Ghanaian cocoa cooperative, Kuapa Kokoo. She handed out samples of the Fair Trade chocolate that is made from the cocoa beans farmed by her cooperative, and she taught Green Festival guests how to pronounce her cooperative's slogan, "pa pa paa," which means "best of the best."
Accompanying Appianim was Erin Gorman, CEO of Divine Chocolate USA, the US distributor of chocolate bars made from Kuapa Kokoo's beans. A long-time friend of Green America, Erin travels often to Ghana to visit the cooperative, and maintains open communication with the farmers who co-own the business. We asked her to tell us more about this pioneering business structure, and the delicious chocolate it produces.
Green America: What does your business do, and what are your most popular products?
Sakinatu, a cocoa farmer and member of Kuapa Kokoo, holds her son Mohammed while sifting the beans. (Photo by Charlotte Borger.)
Erin Gorman: Ten years ago, Divine was launched in the UK as a social enterprise significantly owned by the farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana.
We launched the US arm of Divine two years ago, with the same mission: in addition to supplying lovely chocolate, Divine improves the livelihoods of West African cocoa farmers through their own dynamic brand, while being highly visible and vocal advocates for Fair Trade, and serving as a catalyst for change.
Our chocolate is available nationwide in a growing number of retail stores and online it is sold by members of Green America's Green Business Network such as SERRV International, Global Exchange, and World of Good. We also run a fundraising program that is becoming a popular and delicious way to raise money while supporting Fair Trade.
What makes your business green?
Erin: Divine has been recognized in the US and in Europe for its commitment to Fair Trade and its pioneering ownership model. The farmers of Kuapa Kokoo have a significant ownership in the company, seats on the board, and a share in the profits. We've created a brand that allows farmers to tell their own story.
We joined Green America because it is an aspirational community, where everyday we learn about new ways to improve how we do business. Green is a process, not a destination, and it's a pleasure to be involved in the journey with so many other social entrepreneurs.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Erin: Divine is not really "mine," since Divine belongs to the farmers. Plus, the branch of Divine that we started in the US is merely an outgrowth of an existing company.
However, I don't mind mentioning that prior to working with Divine, I had the good fortune of managing Green America's Fair Trade program, along with other duties at Green America. I really enjoy my new work, which brings me into even closer contact with the workings of the Fair Trade system on a daily basis.
Milk or dark? Divine offers both types of chocolate, along with special flavors like mint and strawberry.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Erin: As a global brand, our biggest green challenge is the environmental and economic cost of fostering participation by farmers in Ghana in our work in the US. Kuapa Kokoo works very hard to encourage cocoa farmers to actively participate in the leadership of the cooperative, and then in the promotion of their chocolate brand to the world at large.
However, there are real limits to the frequency of visits to the US that are possible for the farmers. There are time constraints to deal with, and the carbon footprint of the plane trips. Our challenge is to find partners to help facilitate participation in new and tangible ways, using new and emerging technologies. For example, we've started establishing some video-linking programs between schools in Kuapa societies and schools in the UK. I am hoping to be able to bring this soon to the US as well.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
The first step toward a chocolate bar :
Erin: When we launched the US company, we brought farmer representatives to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to conduct a briefing about how Fair Trade has improved the lives of cocoa farmers in Ghana. On a snowy morning, Comfort Kumeah, a mother of five and a cocoa farmer, delivered a moving speech to a packed congressional chamber about how the democratic empowerment of the Fair Trade system has enabled her to rise through the elected levels of the cooperative to become the first woman to be named National Secretary of Kuapa Kokoo.
She explained that this was a great accomplishment for her and a an example of what is possible for poor, rural women. Creating trading relationships that are based on dignity and respect means everyone benefits, and I feel so proud to be a part of that process.
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Erin: It is vital for entrepreneurs with a social mission to be parat of a community that inspires and challenges them. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges of running a business and to assume that the mission can take care of itself.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Erin: I look forward to bringing more businesses and their customers into efforts to address poverty and development through Fair Trade and social enterprise. This is an essential part of any green economy -- finding ways to improve the livelihoods of the world's poor. Green America has been a leader in ensuring that the definition of "green" includes social and economic justice.
In particular, it is exciting to see "Fair Trade towns" popping up across the country -- seeing citizens take control of their own local marketplace.
Have you made any valuable connections by being part of the Green America community?
Erin: The Green Festivals are essential to reaching more people for companies like Divine. Allowing people to try Divine chocolate in person lets them fall in love with the product at the same time that they fall in love with the irresistable proposition for making the market work for cocoa farmers.
What green product could you not live without?
Erin: I try to buy only what I must, but I love Christmas and do all of my gift buying from SERRV International each year. My family loves the stories behind each gift, and they proudly show them off to their friends.