Determination, dedication and a good dose of idealism are what drive Christoph Inauen in leading a chocolate revolution in the jungles of Peru.
It’s less than half a year since the Swiss man and his French partner launched Choba Choba, and on a day in early March he’s back in Peru to present the producers with the first batch of exquisitely packaged chocolate bars made from their cocoa.
This jungle setting has become Inauen’s second home, and the producers here his partners in the initiative – as well as his second family.
“They are like mothers to me,” Inauen says while hugging Charito Paima Mendoza in her open kitchen-dining area-community gathering space in the jungle community of Santa Rosa. On every visit Charito, and her counterpart in neighbouring Pucallpillo, Pasiona Caballero Mendoza, give loving assurances that Inauen and partner Eric Garnier are well looked after.
Inauen is here to continue his aim to transform the global chocolate industry.
“Globalisation has gone too far. Farmers have nothing to say and labels (such as certifications) have become a tool to legitimize the system,” he says with missionary zeal.
He and Garnier set up Choba Choba, a limited company in Switzerland, last year to empower cocoa producers. Instead of just paying them for their produce, Choba Choba makes them shareholders. About three dozen families are involved.
Inauen has fiercely criticised major chocolate processors for the huge profits they take at the cost of producers. He speaks from experience.
Previously director of sustainability at Swiss supermarket chain Coop’s chocolate brand Halba, and a collaborator at Swiss NGO Helvetas, Inauen had long worked with cocoa producers in Africa and Latin America. In Mali he witnessed extreme poverty amongst the cocoa farmers that provide the raw materials for a global chocolate industry estimated to be worth approximately $10 billion.
Eight years ago, after meeting cocoa producers in Peru’s Huayabamba valley, Inauen realized that things should change.
“The farmers told us: Look guys, the market price of cocoa is a joke. So we discussed with the farmers here what needed to change, and then decided to create a Swiss chocolate brand where farmers would be in charge of a price-setting mechanism. It’s a bottom-up pricing system.”
“It was time to show that other models could exist,” he says. Choba Choba would essentially be an alternative to certification schemes, such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ.
Since launching the brand in October, the blue-eyed Bernese has worked incessantly towards the success of Choba Choba’s “chocolate revolution”.
Determination, dedication and a good dose of idealism appear to drive Inauen in his latest project. Since conceiving Choba Choba, which is yet to turn a profit, he and Garnier have worked for free to keep costs to a minimum.
“Through my previous work, I always wanted to change the world. But I was a bit frustrated because many of the economic projects were not well structured. I tried NGOs. I tried the private sector. It was an evolution for me to go into a set up where I could define a system, as I believe it could have the greatest impact.”
Inauen, who speaks Spanish like a Peruvian, is also fluent in German, French and English.
But whatever the language, communication – often at a very personal level - is central to Inauen’s mission of reforming chocolate’s supply chain.
Since last year, Inauen has repeated Choba Choba’s story to potential financial backers, customers and journalists.
“Goldman Sachs (a US investment banking group) called us to ask how to invest $10 million. But they didn’t get the concept,” Inauen recalls.
For him, Choba Choba was about impacting the lives of cocoa farmers, not creating a large-scale operation to generate profit for far-away investors.
Inauen’s enthusiasm has found thousands of supporters amongst his clientele, whose smiley selfies of their first bites of the chocolate bars were recently posted at Pucallpillo’s community hall.
During his stay here, Inauen took time to speak to everyone, who he knew by name and who he seemed to genuinely care about. Here was a man in his element.
At a chocolate tasting during which the producers tried chocolates made from their cocoa plantations, he bobbed from bench to bench to tap opinions, nodding here, giggling there at comments made by the young and old.
Working as equal business partners with the producers - and in full transparency -is essential to maintain their confidence, he explains.
With Choba Choba producers earmarked to become the majority shareholders in the company, getting the message across was important. Inauen made it clear to them that they were their own ambassadors.
“This is the first time that Peruvian cocoa producers are owners of an international brand of chocolate. It’s the first time that producers sell chocolate directly to consumers, ” Inauen told the families, after presenting a slide show accompanied by Peruvian music.
Just like every other aspect of Choba Choba’s business, Inauen’s pitch had been refined with the support and advice of community leaders. They worked late into the night before the general assembly, long after everyone else had gone to sleep.
And part of the effort meant joining in in a football match in the sweltering jungle heat and humidity.
On one evening, Inauen quickly reappeared with his usual grin at the communal dinner after taking a quick shower following a game. “I need to stay active, it gives me energy,” he says about his approach to succeed in his mission.
As he dug into a meal of free-range chicken and fried bananas, he describes this chocolate revolution as a step-by-step process. “It would take us two or three lives to develop further what we have here.”
First he wants to see that Choba Choba is having a positive impact on these two communities.