Madagascar takes your breath away. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. And it breaks your heart, because it’s also one of the poorest countries in the world.
After spending several years living in Madagascar as Peace Corps Volunteers, some friends and I wanted to change this. So, in 2008, we started Madécasse Chocolate.
Our mission? Make the best chocolate in the world and do it entirely in Madagascar, from scratch. The concept is simple; the execution is anything but.
Although at least 65% of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, less than 1% of chocolate is made there — a situation that limits the economic benefit for the communities responsible for growing the crop. By making chocolate in Madagascar, we generate income and skilled labor for villagers in a country where they would otherwise have none.
Whole Foods Market stocks its shelves with Madécasse chocolate. Due to its high quality, people come back to buy it again and again.
The business cycle is complete. Poverty is reduced through the sustainable production of fine chocolate. This could be the end of a good story — but there is more to Madagascar.
Eighty-five percent of the flora and fauna in Madagascar’s celebrated forests is endemic — it exists nowhere else on Earth. And 90% of the country’s original forest has been burnt to the ground, slowly and steadily, over the past thousand years.
The culprit is not international logging — instead, it’s indigenous people trying to stay alive one more day. Indigenous farmers don’t clear-cut for timber; they simply live a poor existence. A branch to make charcoal here, a little plot of land to grow crops there. Simply put, the forest provides life — but if its destruction doesn’t stop, there will soon be no more forest left to provide these resources for local people.
On a recent trip to Madagascar, I was surprised to witness a conservation effort I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t planned. It was accidental. And it was being led by rural cocoa farmers for whom the Western concept of “conservation” does not exist.
Lalitiana is one such farmer. He’s a mild-mannered father of two whose family has been farming the same plot for four generations.
Like many farmers in Madagascar, Lalatiana grows a little bit of everything — rice, bananas, coffee, cocoa, manioc — whatever the local environment supports. But recently he’s been planting more cocoa trees.
Three cocoa trees, one hardwood. Three cocoa trees, one hardwood. This planting ratio is repeated across a hillside. Farmers are effectively reforesting their lands — lands that haven’t been forested in living memory.
Cocoa trees are fragile. They depend on a forest canopy to protect them. Exposed to direct sunlight, cocoa trees will fry and fail to produce fruit. And farmers, like Lalatiana, won’t make money.
Why are farmers planting more cocoa trees? Because farmers earn 60% more income from cocoa than they do from farming other crops.
Rural cocoa farmers in Madagascar are no different than Americans or any other people on the planet: They want a better life for themselves. Income generation for locals has been the missing piece in many historic conservation efforts in poor countries. Solve that problem, and conservation works. Ignore it, and conservation is a tough proposition in poor countries.
As I spoke with farmer after farmer in Madagascar, I realized that not only do cocoa farmers like Lalatiana rely on the hardwood forest to protect their cocoa trees, they also rely on it to protect their income.
Include the local people (the entire village, not just one or two people), and conservation works. Specifically, give locals an alternative that generates more income than depleting the forest and conservation not only works, it starts to work on its own. (Learn more about Madécasse in the video below.)
We started Madécasse with the goal of changing the economic status quo in Madagascar. In doing so, we’ve accidentally discovered the enormous potential to change the status quo in the conservation of its critical resources.
This is important considering the country’s political instability. Madagascar is about to enter its fourth year without an internationally recognized government. Businesses and market-based solutions have an important role to play. They have an opportunity to take action where the government can’t, or won’t.
To that end, Madécasse Chocolate has recently partnered with CI to expand our operations in Madagascar with a loan from Verde Ventures, an investment fund founded by CI to provide capital and technical assistance to conservation-minded businesses like Madécasse.
In the spirit of partnership, Madécasse has created a special CI Madagascar chocolate and vanilla gift set. When you buy this gift set or any other products in our web store between now and Valentine’s Day, 25% of your purchase will be donated to CI to support conservation efforts like those in Madagascar. Just click on this special store link or write “CI” in the comment box during checkout.
We look to CI and the Verde Ventures team’s professional conservation experience to help us make the most of our accidental conservation success.
Tim McCollum is a co-founder of Madécasse Chocolate. In 2011, Madécasse was recognized by Fast Company Magazine as one of “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.” Madécasse Chocolate is available online and nationwide at Whole Foods Market.