Whinney, who owns the Seattle-based confectioner Theo Chocolate, is well versed in fair-trade commerce. Since 2006 he’s been supplying his organic chocolate line with cacao from fair-trade markets all over the world including Costa Rica, Peru and the Dominican Republic, helping to convert poor working conditions and pay into equitable enterprises. His products have been marketed by more than 4,000 retailers, including niche outlets like Whole Foods and are proof that fair trade business does sell in North America.
For academy award winner Ben Affleck, who founded the Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010, Theo Chocolate’s know-how is perfect synergy for his advocacy group’s mission, which is to provide grant-funding support and resources for farmers and businesses in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Less than 3 percent of the arable land in the Congo is being utilized as farmland due to ongoing conflicts, resulting in sustained poverty, malnutrition and unemployment. Affleck’s goal is to change this percentage and help Congolese reestablish a healthy economy. Cacao, which can be used for a wide range of chocolate products, is one crop that has a seemingly endless worldwide demand, even during economic downturns.
The chocolate for Theo’s Congo brand comes from organically grown cacao beans in East Congo’s humid jungle areas. Cacao usually grows best in regions close to the equator (which intersects the DRC), where humidity and soil conditions provide optimum growing seasons year round. Farmers grow and harvest the cacao and then extract the valuable cocoa beans that are used for producing chocolate. The beans are dried, fermented and roasted before being ground and used for chocolate.
Cacao production also makes perfect strategic sense for this region of the DRC, which has been home to armed rebels for years. Cacao possesses no commercial value to the rebels, and therefore isn’t considered a resource or a threat in the ongoing conflict. ECI grantee Greenhouse helps train the farmers, who must learn the proper growing and harvesting techniques for this shaded plant. In the process, new businesses are created, ones that have a sustainable demand and with gradually increasing production, can employ more people.
According to Theo, the farmers are paid roughly two or three times what they would receive in the local market. This increased pay trickles down to workers in the Congo, but also helps the business owners maintain better working and manufacturing conditions. The increase is offset by a small markup on the price of this premier brand, which goes on average for $5 a bar. With an already established fair trade brand that has a loyal following of organic chocolate customers, Theo’s Congo chocolate offers another innovative way for transforming impoverished regions into self-supporting resources for sustainable jobs.