What does Uncommon Cacao do?

by Emily Stone

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 — 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 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 the 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.

“There’s a lot of conversation around the idea of ‘direct trade’ between cacao farmers and chocolate makers, but the truth is, there’s a lot of work to be done in making that connection,” says Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolate. “Uncommon Cacao is a responsible intermediary that provides cacao farmers sustainable prices and access to market, while making it simple for chocolate makers to consistently source fine flavor cacao. Through Uncommon, we are connected directly to the fantastic community of Lachua, Guatemala. Through this partnership, French Broad Chocolate gets their delicious cacao, and the Lachua association gets fair and sustainable prices and technical support. Everyone wins!”

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.

As Carlos from Cacao de Colombia shares, “For us, working with Uncommon Cacao makes a lot of sense. We are perfectly aligned in our visions of development of the industry, in how the cacao and chocolate supply chains should be structured and distribute value in a fair and equitable way so we can all live in a better world. We share a passion for high-quality cacao and how this quality enables producers to break the cycle of low prices and get access to higher value markets that offer higher and stable prices and moves them away from the toxic commodity market.”

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.

This stability for origins is crucial. Minni notes, “If it weren’t for our relationship [with Uncommon Cacao], we would not be able to be the reliable, stable cacao buyer that is the hallmark Maya Mountain Cacao is known for here in Belize. Farmers in our network know us as the most reliable, trusted buyer. We always pay for cacao on time and we never miss a scheduled buying day. The only reason we’ve been able to do this, as opposed to other on-and-off companies, is due to our unique, responsible sourcing model. On the sales end, instead of relying on one customer, we have a diverse group of loyal customers that make our business more sustainable. This model also allows us to work with smaller makers just getting started and larger manufacturers. On the growing end, it allows us the bandwidth to manage an organic certified network of more than 400 farmers, most of which have less than 5 acres of cacao. It is this versatility on both ends that is crucial to growing the craft chocolate industry in a way that is beneficial for everyone along the supply chain.”

In situations where buyers at origin only purchase from farmers for short periods of the year, these abrupt changes in annual income can affect access to education, health resources, and the livelihoods of farmers and their families.

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.

“While cacao sourcing is one of the most critical parts of our small scale chocolate manufacturing business, it is often the first one to get neglected as the demands of the job pull us in many directions,” shared Adam Dick of Dick Taylor Chocolate. “This is why we rely on and value the work that Uncommon Cacao does. With their experience and expertise, they are able to take a huge load off our shoulders by making the process of sourcing cacao more streamlined and efficient.”

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.

Our Transparent Trade methodology implemented across our supply chain creates trust and interdependence that benefits all. As Sam Ratto of Videri Chocolate said, “The value you deliver to Videri is quality beans, always. Uncommon delivers value as a business that puts equality and values up front. You show us through trips to source and your transparency reports that you are pushing your mission of good cacao, grown, harvested and transported by good people. Growing cacao is hard, detailed work.”

In the context of the massive, dehumanized commodity market, Transparent Trade 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.”

This connectivity and transparency across the supply chain creates new meaning for producers of specialty cacao. As Teddy from Cacao Verapaz shares, “For the smallholder farmers, tasting chocolate made somewhere far away that is proudly labeled with the name of their community brings them so much pride. Seeing the cacao that they produce with so much effort and dedication being transformed into something so delicious to be enjoyed by people who have never been to their village makes their hard work mean more than just money, but a connection with something bigger.”

We all hope that eventually, we’ll live in a world where supermarket shoppers truly care about the producers behind a bar — we’re not there yet, and probably won’t be for a while. But that doesn’t give us as an industry the excuse to continue using undefined and nebulous words like “Direct Trade,” especially without understanding the impact on producers. 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. We are honored and proud to partner as an intermediary with so many incredible chocolate makers and cacao producers who together are making this future a reality.