Tim McCollum went to Madagascar over 20 years ago as a Peace Corps fellow. Since then he’s helped transform the chocolate industry in the country by doing something unusual: making chocolate bars on the island itself.
“Madagascar has Earth’s original genetic variety of cocoa,” he explains. “It’s not been hybridized, like much of the cocoa produced in West Africa, which is used in most chocolate bars around the world. This means it has more flavor, and a unique profile.”
Although 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, chocolate bars are largely produced in Europe and beyond. McCollum wanted to change that equation. “Agricultural products don’t fetch much generally. It’s the value add that creates economic opportunity.”
So 13 years ago, McCollum set out to do something that no other mainstream chocolate brand had mastered: set up a factory near the farms themselves and train the farming communities on how to produce high-quality chocolate bars. That became the crux of Beyond Good, formerly called Madecasse.
It took him, he says, nearly a decade to figure out the right model. “It’s not easy to do. That’s probably why it’s not done.”
Despite the challenges, he persevered, even if that meant temporarily producing their chocolate in Italy, while they fine-tuned their facilities in Madagascar. But he’s one that’s often going against the grain. For instance, Beyond Good has opted not to participate in conventional certifications; instead, they’ve focused on some basic data to ensure that they are creating a positive impact: is farmer income increasing? Is the standard of living for everyone involved in the company improving? How many farmers and workers are part of the supply chain?
“And given that our farmers are earning 5 times as much, and surpassing metrics for fair trade, we just have a third-party come in and do an audit routinely to determine our impact, rather than rely on these certifications,” McCollum says.
These audits indicate that Beyond Good’s farmers make nearly $4 a day; in comparison, a typical cocoa farmer in Africa would fetch $.50 to $.70 a day. Much of this has to do with their direct trade model, which cuts down on unnecessary middlemen, McCollum explains.
But there’s still room to grow and evolve, he adds. Whereas the coffee industry has focused on high quality Arabica beans, seen the third wave movement take off in the US and Europe, and created metrics to encourage flavor and quality over quantity, the cocoa industry, McCollum says, is still behind. “If we were to compare chocolate to coffee, we’re still in the 1980s. We have a long way to go to help people taste the different notes in chocolate. Right now, a lot of it is still milk and sugar.”
That lends itself to the burgeoning bean-to-bar movement. He jokes that when they started the company there were only three bean-to-bar companies in America, including theirs. Now, there’s hundreds of bean-to-bar companies. “But we’re still a very small percentage of the total chocolate market,” he notes.
Beyond Good, though, is growing itself, and going beyond its Madagascan roots to work with cocoa farmers in Uganda. This will enable the company to produce more chocolate, given Uganda produces nearly three times as much a non-hybridized variety cocoa as Madagascar. It’s easy to access by air, and McCollum can replicate some of the successes of Madagascar there.
In the process of producing chocolate bars, McCollum became involved with wildlife conservation — somewhat unexpectedly. For the past three years, the company has been working with Bristol University in the UK on how cocoa trees could help lemur populations, a species that’s been dwindling in numbers. Since cocoa is a shade crop that enjoys a protective canopy, it can also serve as a home to a variety of wildlife. McCollum is hoping that these cocoa trees could be part of the solution for conservation work in Madagascar. Over 800 cultivated acres are already providing refuge to this endangered species, and the company plans to support this work as it’s so intertwined with their own mission as a brand.
“A year or two ago, I heard the term ‘regenerative agriculture,’” McCollum says. “But turns out we had been doing this all along. Trees are vital to the ecosystem. Call it agroforestry, regenerative agriculture. It’s all beneficial for the wildlife, the community, and the planet.”