Philipp Kauffmann, founder of Original Beans, talks about artisanal chocolate and ethical trade | The big interview

It was during the final stages of the Colombian peace talks that Philipp Kauffmann traveled to meet the Arhuaco people of northern Colombia. The government had recently agreed to start paying farmers to grow cocoa for chocolate instead of coca for cocaine, and called on a select group of international aid agencies to figure out how to do it. . Kauffmann was among them.

As a former UN conservationist, Kauffmann traveled on behalf of Original Beans, the artisanal chocolate company he started in 2010 to make chocolate from some of the beans from rarest cocoa in the world, while supporting the communities that grow them. While researching varietals in Colombia, Kauffmann and the team quickly came across the Arhuaco, an indigenous people growing rare cacao on their ancestral land, amidst pristine rainforest and pristine coastline.

When Kauffmann met with the spiritual leader of the Arhuaco, Kauffmann told them about the mission of Original Beans, its tree planting program (one bar, one tree) and its compostable packaging. “They were intrigued,” Kauffmann recalls. “They took some of our packaging and said, ‘we’re going to test this here and if it’s true, we’ll talk about it’.” Luckily, the packaging really did compost, and Original Beans has since been sourcing from Arhuaco. As Kauffmann summarizes: “It can be quite adventurous to find our beans.”

Kauffman’s background partly explains this adventurous approach. An economist by training, he spent several years at the UN funding biodiversity ventures such as ecotourism, forestry and coffee cooperatives, before leaving the organization in 2008 because “it didn’t seem to him to be efficient enough “.

Seeking new opportunities, Kauffmann spoke to a friend and marketer who alerted him to the possibilities of chocolate. “She said look at this industry and how shitty it is. There’s no way it can stay that way,” Kauffmann says. “And I was intrigued.”

Kauffmann considers himself a seventh-generation conservationist – his ancestor coined the term “sustainability” in 1794 to describe managing forests in a way that ensures future generations can also benefit – and created Original Beans with l ambition to get back to nature more than it takes.

Fourteen years later, Original Beans is not just “the creamiest dark milk [chocolate] I found,” according to the Observer’s resident chocolatier correspondent, but is helping to regenerate eight of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots through local partnerships with farmers in areas from Virunga National Park to Congo to Mexico’s largest rainforest, Selva Zoque.

“We have three main criteria when looking for a place where we could work,” says Kauffmann. “One is biodiversity. So, is there a bigger impact on nature that we can have? The second: is there a rare cocoa? Is there anything interesting? And then third, is there a community that we can actually engage with and work with for the long term? »

In Congo, for example, Original Beans’ NGO, called Bean Team, works with local farmers who have survived the war to help build agricultural cooperatives, create associations and organize literacy and entrepreneurship courses. for women. “It’s not just us who buy chocolate. There is a relationship with that,” Kauffmann says. “It gives people an identity and therefore a certain status and respect. It’s not a no-name commodity. They are very aware that it is cocoa that their ancestors grew, cared for and now ends up in great restaurants.

“Ethical” chocolate

Notably, unlike many other “ethical” chocolate makers, none of Original Bean’s cocoa comes from West Africa, the global production hotspot that accounts for 70% of the world’s supply. For Kauffmann, the region is incompatible with the principles he insists on following.

“The problem in West Africa is enormous. These are abhorrent social conditions, the exploitation of poor marginal farmers, deforestation, unsustainable agriculture,” he says. The result is, “of course, a crap product that goes with lots of sugar and other sorts of bric-a-brac for the customer”.

While some companies such as Tony’s Chocolonely have launched their product on the premise of righting some of these wrongs, the reality is that “digging into this supply chain transparency is impossible because the setup just isn’t there” , says Kauffmann.

From this starting point, Kauffmann argues that two theories of change emerge. The first is the Original Beans approach, which chooses to establish alternative supply chains, not compete on price, and act as the “shining example on the hill” of what a best chocolate industry.

Then there’s Tony’s approach. It partnered with Swiss chocolate giant Barry Callebaut to enable mass production while executing its high profile marketing under the name “Slave Free Chocolate”. In this way, says Kauffmann, Tony’s is trying to move the dial in West Africa by 5% or 10% while still allowing it to compete on price. (Although Tony’s is often considered more expensive than other mainstream chocolate lines, this is largely due to its heavier packaging.)

Kauffmann emphasizes his respect for Tony’s approach, but believes that deep down ‘they are a marketing thing’ – pointing to the number of employees who have shaped the brand since joining the Specialists renowned marketing companies Innocent Drinks.

Name: Philippe Kauffman

Lives: amsterdam

Potted resume: After starting out in a tech company, the green appeal of my environmental ancestors caught up with me. Spent a decade with WWF and the UN. Now conservation in the form of the best chocolate in the world.

Currently listening: “Regeneration” – Paul Hawken’s new founding book of eco-action

Bring change to the chocolate industry: Similar to cigarettes. By law, you must label products with more than 50% sugar as “sugar” (not chocolate). Specify that they are fatal and tax accordingly.

“Essentially, they conceptualized everything around the story and a marketing idea, then went to Callebaut and said, ‘Can you make me this private label with a Fairtrade label?’

“Then, over time, they realized that this transparency was much more complicated than they thought and they can’t promise it. So they changed their goal several times. But along the way, they succeeded to attract a lot of new consumers.

Kauffmann is more passionate about the “hundreds” of artisan chocolatiers now springing up across the UK and Europe using artisanal processes, producing single-origin bars and creating a “completely different taste experience” to anything can be found on supermarket shelves.

It’s a pet peeve of Kauffmann that, while all retailers now have clearly marked sections for “craft” coffee and beer, the same is not true for chocolate. And this despite the fact that the category is “vibrant enough and charismatic enough that we position them differently”.

Based on this, Original Beans eschews conventional retailers until they start to clearly distinguish the shelves. Even Selfridges, which ran its Project Earth campaign to highlight brands committed to the environment, positions Original Beans next to Tony’s on the same shelf “although our supply chain and categories are totally different”, says Kauffman.

If supermarkets singled out local artisan chocolate, Kauffmann says – giving space to brands such as Suffolk’s Pump Street, Edinburgh’s Ocelot or Devon’s Solkiki – it could help change the wider industry, according to him. This shift could celebrate the wide variety of cocoas available rather than building products based primarily on sugar.

“Craft beer has modernized its industry. It shows the beauty of beer and its taste. Same with coffee,” he says. Now, he argues, the time has come for chocolate to show what it can do.

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