The social enterprise Divine Chocolate has come a long way since its launch in the late 90s. What started as a simple idea to get more Fairtrade-certified chocolate from west Africa on sale in the UK has grown steadily into an international chocolate business with a turnover of £12m a year and offices in both the UK and the US.
Its success has won numerous plaudits along the way. Sophi Tranchell (right), who has been managing director of Divine since 1999, says that part of its success lies in the fact that it produces a product that has widespread appeal. "Through chocolate we're able to engage with everyone," she says. "It makes it quite distinct from social enterprises that are doing more complicated things."
What separates Divine from its commercial rivals is not just the fact that it produces only Fairtrade-certified chocolate, but also its ownership structure. Forty-four per cent of the business is owned by Kuapa Kokoo, a cooperative of cocoa farmers in Ghana set up in 1993. Divine buys almost all of its cocoa from the cooperative and gives 2 per cent of its annual turnover to fund Kuapa Kokoo's work. Tranchell says it has invested more than £2m in projects to support cocoa farming communities to date. "A lot of money has been invested in schools, wells and schemes in medical clinics," says Tranchell. "We have also helped to build information management systems and helped with training on cooperative principles and values."
But the path to profitability has not been smooth. The financial crisis hit Divine hard in 2009 largely because of the problems it caused with the currency markets. Divine buys its chocolate in euros and sells it in pounds sterling and dollars. The fall in the value of the pound in particular meant that its profit margin disappeared almost overnight. "It has been interesting time to operate," says Tranchell. "Since 2009, we have had to focus on rebuilding the business in the UK and building our business in the US."
Tranchell says that Divine has also worked hard on improving the quality of its products to ensure they compete with other leading premium brands on taste. Customers won't keep buying a chocolate bar "just because it has a good story behind it", she says.
It has also worked hard on getting the message out about the difference buying its product makes to cocoa farmers. "We have built brand loyalty off the back of the fact that we have an unusual ownership structure," says Tranchell. "We have made it real by bringing farmers over here to speak at all sorts of events and by talking to MPs."
Changes in consumer behaviour have also helped Divine in recent years. Fifteen years ago only a limited number of consumers were taking into account social and ethical considerations when purchasing products, says Tranchell. Now many more, especially the younger millennial generation, are purchasing ethically.
Divine continues to face challenges. Many of the major chocolate companies now use Fairtrade-certified chocolate in their well-known cheaper brands, which has made it harder to differentiate its upmarket brand from the mainstream. Tranchell considers this a success for Divine because part of its mission has always been to ensure that more cocoa farmers receive a fair price for their products.
But she considers the availability of its products as its main challenge. Divine is stocked by retailers such as Waitrose and Starbucks and in charity shops such as Oxfam, but it's not readily available in locations such train stations. "I'm under no illusion that people can be seduced by cheap things that are easily available," she says. This why Divine is trying to make its products available in more places in the UK and abroad.