WELL BEFORE SHE HAD HER WAY WITH THE COCOA INDUSTRY, SOPHI TRANCHELL MBE DEVOTED HER LIFE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE. 

A  feisty anti-apartheid activist in her youth, her insistence on conscious consumption led to a brave new foray into the chocolate industry, as she joined the newly-formed Divine Chocolate in 1999. Sophi has since driven the agenda for social enterprise with a winning combination of insight, exasperation and formidable zeal. 

A firebrand who has paved the way for so many others, Sophi speaks openly about how Divine became a textbook case for social enterprises in the UK and beyond. 

On Making A Difference 

I am a relentless optimist; I passionately believe that people can make a difference to the world they live in by becoming conscious consumers. 

When I was younger I was an anti-apartheid campaigner, mobilising people to boycott products from countries where there was racial conflict; that’s why I knew that Divine Chocolate had an opportunity to do something really unique. 

It was a chance to convert a commitment towards a better world into a positive purchasing decision. As a result, Divine became one of the founding social enterprises in London. 

On Being an Activist Organisation 

We have always been a pioneering company. 

The first people to coin the phrase ‘social enterprise’ in Britain were Social Enterprise London, of which we were one of the founding companies. So, I’ve seen that grow and I was a social enterprise Ambassador during the Gordon Brown era when it was also a funded programme. 

Today, it is easier for companies to be genuinely purpose-driven because Divine, Cafédirect and a few others paved the way. 

On Alternative Ownership Models 

This pandemic has introduced the idea of supply chains to people who’ve never really properly thought about them, whether it’s the supply chains for masks and PPE or for food. 

Today, we work with farmers in Ghana, São Tomé, Sierra Leone and Malawi. 

As a company we have over 90,000 owners – the members of the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana that own a stake of Divine. We also invest in producer support and development programmes, in addition to buying cocoa and sugar from those farmers at Fairtrade prices. 

Sometimes it seems like consumers don’t recognise ownership as part of the solution for reducing hardship and inequality for smallholder farmers. It’s one of the reasons why our championing of women in the workforce will increasingly be a strong, clear message for us as we go forward. 

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"WOMEN HAVE BEEN THE INVISIBLE, UNPAID LABOUR FORCE ON THEIR HUSBANDS’ FARMS FOR TOO LONG. WE ALL KNOW THAT IF MONEY REACHES WOMEN IN COMMUNITIES, THEY WILL INVEST IN HEALTH, EDUCATION AND FOOD – ALL THE THINGS THAT MAKE A THRIVING COMMUNITY."

On Chocolate and Gender 

Chocolate is mainly eaten and purchased by women. Women also play a fundamental role in producing the main ingredient for chocolate – cocoa.

This means that millions of chocolate buyers, when they hear the stories of these women farmers, can relate to them and the disadvantaged position in the supply chain they find themselves in. 

When I started out at Divine Chocolate 21 years ago, I tried to sell in the injustice of the cocoa industry to mainstream media. I got nowhere. 

Eventually, I cracked the story by telling them: “There are loads of women in this supply chain and not one has ever tasted chocolate.” 

Strangely, it didn’t matter to the media that those women also sent their children to schools where they were dying of diseases the western world had cured 100 years ago. That really should’ve been the story, but the fact that they didn’t get to eat chocolate was the one that caught the limelight. How awful is that? 

On Corporate Competition 

At Divine Chocolate, our purpose is our unique selling point. It gives us a loyalty that money can’t buy. 

Chocolate is a really mature, valuable and competitive market and the top three corporate players in the industry have been putting their products on shop shelves for more than a century. 

We’re always trying to compete with sky-high advertising spending and, more recently, a proliferation of ethical claims by companies, both large and small, making the field even more competitive. 

Of course, aside from our unique business model, the other reason why Divine is still around 21 years after I started, is that the chocolate is bloody marvellous! 

On Improving Livelihoods 

Women have been the invisible, unpaid labour force on their husbands’ farms for too long. We all know that if money reaches women in communities, they will invest in health, education and food – all the things that make a thriving community. 

Generally, when NGOs talk about helping ‘farmers’, they really mean men. When you look into their interventions, you find out that women don’t turn up to the training. Why? Usually, it’s because the training is being offered in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the wrong language, in a culturally inappropriate way. 


On Deforestation 

As a business, we’ve found that rewards generally work better than punishment. 

In 2018, Ghana was losing its rainforest faster than any other country in the world due to the growth of the cocoa industry and the illegal mining industry. Wherever we operate, there is often protected rainforest close by, where farming is not allowed. We check that those boundaries are observed. But we also believe that if you pay and support farmers properly, it’s in their interests to become guardians of the rainforest. 

In Sierra Leone, we have an exciting programme that has helped farmers get Fairtrade-certified and their Organic certification is on its way. These farmers are working on creating a protective buffer around the rainforest. In that zone, they don’t cut down trees and they don’t kill animals, instead discovering different ways to fend them off. 

The industry has always leant towards punishment as a form of risk management, with the view – ‘Let’s locate the baddies, get rid of them and prove we’re not working with them.’ 

Instead, what Divine has tried to do all along is be the competitor that irritates the competition, precisely because it demonstrates how to do things in a better way. 

On Being a B Corp 

I was interested in the idea of being a B Corp from the very beginning. It caught my attention because it provided a method of looking at the whole company, not just the products they sell. 

I’m keen on the idea of having a set of standards across a company’s processes, on which it has to be assessed on a regular basis. It means you have to know that information yourself and have advocates inside your company. 

Previously, there have been some socially-minded business trends that have probably done more harm than good. Corporate Social Responsibility, for instance, posed a problem. It allowed companies to do awful things but feel absolved when they did something good. It was purpose-washing, pure and simple. 

My real hope was that with B Corp you might be able to pick up a product and check that company’s credentials, including its B Corp score, before making a decision to buy it. It’s still my hope today. I also think it needs to set a minimum base standard on sustainability and employee welfare, among others. But to have real success, B Corp needs to make a difference for consumers, and not just for companies. 

On the Future 

Without trying to sound too alarmist, as a world we face a number of major issues that need to be addressed. If we fail to address them soon, we will have no world left. 

As Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, makes clear – if we don’t look at how we can deliver for the whole planet while operating within the means of the planet, then we can’t survive. 

We have a nine-year window to make significant change before 2030. Nine years to change the way we live our lives and run our businesses. B Corp has shown promise, but there’s no time to get things wrong – because we need to get it right quickly. 

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