“When we sat down ten years ago, we wanted to change the way the chocolate industry worked. To that degree we’ve succeeded.”
The managing director of fair-trade success story Divine Chocolate, Sophi Tranchell, lives and breathes ethical enterprise. Divine seeks to establish trading relationships where people are valued as much as profits. In her roles as Social Enterprise Ambassador and co-chair of Social Enterprise London, Sophi’s ambition is the same: to change the way the world thinks about business.
“I was brought up in an activist household,” she explains, “where the sense of social justice and doing what you could to solve problems where you saw yourself as a protagonist was important.”
While studying politics and philosophy at WarwickUniversity, she had her first taste of turning the business system on its head. As a member of the university’s anti-apartheid group, she bought shares in Shell – one of the companies trading in South Africa and supplying the army with petrol. The shareholding enabled the group to attend and disrupt the AGM and ultimately won the African National Congress the floor as part of a proper process.
“What anti-apartheid showed me was the power consumers had,” Sophi says. “In a negative way, because you could boycott the goods you didn’t want to buy. But also through positive purchasing power: when consumers knew they could make a difference to the way the world worked, they changed the goods and services they purchased.” It is just this kind of positive purchasing power that Sophi aimed to harness with Divine.
Divine’s business model was new and ambitious: Kuapa Kokoo, a co-operative of cocoa farmers in Ghana,owned shares in the company making the chocolate bar. It broke ground from a governance perspective too: the farmers that owned the company also had seats on the board. It all started in 1997 when together with NGO Twin Trading and The Body Shop, and with help from Christian Aid and Comic relief, Kuapa Kokoo set up The Day Chocolate Company. By 1998, the farmer-owned chocolate was launched on the UK market under the name Divine.
When Sophi joined as MD in 1999 after spotting a newspaper advert calling for a new team, the company had already raised finance and had a version of the brand. At the time, she was managing director of art film distributors Metro Tartan, but promotion opportunities were thin on the ground and the idea of joining a big firm was unappealing. Start-up Divine ticked all the boxes, and Sophie’s lack of experience in food retail and development issues even worked in her favour. “If you had known everything, you would have realised just how insurmountable the challenge was.”
The UK’s chocolate industry is worth £3.6bn a year, but around 80% of the market is owned by Cadbury’s, Mars and Nestle. As a small London-based company with just four and a half employees, Divine had a tough fight to get noticed.
In November ‘99, Divine’s listing was limited to Iceland, a few Co-op stores and just 50 Sainsbury’s. But Sophi, and fellow directors including Sandy Balfour and Pauline Tiffen, always believed it would be a big company. After a concerted campaign, and with Christian Aid calling for shops to stock the chocolate, Sainsbury’s increased the listing to 350 shops in January 2000. Expansion was slow but steady.
On average, Divine has enjoyed a healthy 20% year-on-year growth. After nearly a decade of trading, the company has sold more than £39m worth of chocolate and made net profits of £1.9m. The product range now includes items such as muffins and drinking chocolate as well as a growing variety of chocolate bars. Valentine’s Day 2007 saw the company branch out across the Atlantic too.
Sophi’s continued confidence in Divine’s growth potential is deeply rooted in the direction of the market as a whole. Fair-trade chocolate has gone mainstream and even confectionary giant Cadbury recently announced a new commitment to it. Even that can be traced back to the Divine team, according to Sophi. “The work that we have done means there are farmers there who can deliver at the scale that Cadbury’s needs. If we all work together, we could actually make this a step-change in the chocolate industry.”
* Image courtesy of Martin Burton