by Emily Stone
For the long form version of this article on Medium please click the link below:
Historically when I’m asked this question, the first thing that comes to mind is “We’re an intermediary.” But then I don’t say that. I say “We’re a supply chain company.” I find myself avoiding the words that would accurately place Uncommon Cacao in the supply chain -- in the middle -- because of the stigma associated with being a middle(wo)man. But today, I’m proud to declare our place in the supply chain as middlewomen, as the link, and the intermediary.
Here’s a truth about the relationship between specialty cacao producers and craft chocolate: most craft chocolate makers are not bringing in one or more full containers of cacao from each origin they use, and most specialty cacao producers find it challenging to ship in anything but full containers. This presents a clear potential problem: how does craft chocolate get access to the cacao they need, when they need it, in the volumes they need - sometimes as little as one or two sacks? And how do specialty cacao producers achieve stability and sustainability for their businesses while accessing this important, but highly segmented market?
Without an intermediary in the middle, what happens here? Origins air-freight to makers, sometimes to various makers around the world, using valuable time and resources that could be spent improving quality and simply running stable businesses that bring in the cacao needed and pay farmers fairly and on time. Makers pay exorbitant shipping rates to receive the beans, and may or may not decide to use those beans (or pay for them beans to be air-freighted) again.
As Minni, director at Maya Mountain Cacao, one of Uncommon’s origins, shares: “Between facilitating communications among a network of 400+ small farmers, managing a full-time operations team, spearheading agroforestry research projects and processing cacao to top quality, I don't have the time or resources to manage details for all of Maya Mountain Cacao's often complex global sales and logistics, which range from orders of a few sacks to many tons and involve a diverse portfolio of chocolate makers.” The need for the middlewoman is clear.
We’ve also seen makers “collectively” bring in a full container, but in this case one maker typically registers as the importer of record (and thus signs up for all the risks if a container encounters any problems during shipping or import), pays for the container, collects money from the rest of the makers, and then has to organize the logistics for the container to be distributed among the group. Oftentimes, makers will do this once, then the headache of having done it (and the lack of cash flow caused by paying for all the cacao outright) prevents them from buying this way again.
Uncommon Cacao connects the dots between small farmers and small chocolate makers, weaving the relationships together and match-making volumes, flavor profiles, and pricing to create stability and success for all in the supply chain. As Minni notes, “What makes our model workable for chocolate makers, staff, and farmers, is that each link along our supply chain takes full responsibility for key roles, weaving a net of interdependence that truly sets us apart.”
We closely plan our supply and demand each year based on the best projections we can develop for what beans which makers will want and when. We make a commitment at the beginning of the year to all origins for a certain number of containers to be shipped at a certain price point. We do this even if we don’t know where some (or even most) of the cacao is going to end up yet. We rigorously test all cacao to meet our quality and flavor standards before we bring it in -- and if the cacao passes, and it’s within the volume we set at the beginning of the year, the origin can count it as sold.
By making these commitments, we are effectively de-risking the supply chain for both cacao producers and chocolate makers. Our goal is always to be purchasing at least the same amount from each origin every year, and ideally to be growing that volume.
In the same way that producers and small specialty cacao origins are at real risk from instability in the market, small chocolate makers are as well. Makers keep their teams and operations as efficient as possible to reduce overhead costs and seek to build sustainable businesses. The role of Uncommon Cacao is key for them, too -- we often hear from makers that they consider us their in-house sourcing team, even though we are technically a separate company.
In addition to the stability of supply that we offer for chocolate makers, Uncommon Cacao plays a key role for our customers by selling cacao through both spot and forward purchase, offering financing terms to makers, handling shipping logistics from our warehouses in the U.S. and Europe to their factories, and creating both our own and custom-tailored impact reporting and marketing material for makers to promote their use of these incredible beans.
In the context of the massive, dehumanized commodity market, the Transparent Trade model Uncommon offers garners the values that makers seek to embody through a “direct” relationship, without creating instability for producers on the back end or cash flow problems further downstream. So far, Uncommon Cacao is still the only intermediary in the market willing to invest in and openly share all of our pricing, margin, and social and environmental impact information with all of our customers. We believe in this approach so strongly, that it’s written into our foundation as our Company Guarantee: “We promise to provide you any information you want to know about our supply chain.”
Working with an intermediary like Uncommon Cacao that uses verifiable and published “Transparent Trade” practices, and actively sharing information with your chocolate consumers about your supply chain, allows craft chocolate to embark on an ambitious and honest path to building real value over the long-term for cacao farmers globally, creating a bright future ahead for fine flavor cacao and obsessively good chocolate.