Green & Black’s

The Maya Gold Story

Maya Gold 1st packagingI was born in Nebraska on a farm during World War 2. After the war we lived in California, then England, then in Omaha, where I learnt the fundamentals of business as a paperboy for the Omaha World Herald, then back in England, then the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1966 my Uncle Floyd offered me a deal on 1000 acres of rich riverside land in Iowa and a 700 head beef feedlot if I would join him in the farming business after I graduated from the Wharton School. Instead, like many of my contemporaries, I discovered the macrobiotic diet and developed an awareness of the unsustainability, both in terms of human health and of the environment, of the way that food and farming was going. I didn’t want to be part of the problem and I aspired to help bring about the solution.

So, way back in 1967, in partnership with my brother Gregory, I set up a macrobiotic restaurant in London, 2 years later a retail store, another year later and we had a branded brown rice and macrobiotic foods packing operation under the Whole Earth brand. By the late 1970s our Whole Earth peanut butter was in several major supermarkets and we launched the world’s first range of fruit juice sweetened jams. Look at that alongside my wholewheat bakery business and you had all the ingredients for the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – I’m afraid that much of my product development has just been about finding healthy and organic alternatives to my favourite foods, then marketing them on the assumption that enough people will come into the niche we’d created.

I have also been involved with the Soil Association since that time, and am now its chair. The Soil Association is Britain’s organic food and farming organisation, , researching, lobbying, campaigning and also providing a certification service. Our patron is the Prince of Wales and he is also, and this is unprecedented, the chairman of our Appeal Board – we are about to launch a major fundraising campaign. I’m also the author of The Little Food Book, which is a clear and concise overview of all the key food related issues of our time. Available from Amazon and good bookshops. The American edition is coming out this Fall.

In 1991 our company Whole Earth Foods launched Green & Black’s brand organic dark chocolate made with organic cocoa beans grown in Togo, West Africa.

Green & Black’s was a high quality product in its own right, the first ever 70% cocoa solids chocolate to be sold in the UK. It happened to be organic and fairly traded, too, because the cocoa beans were a product of a 1980s French foreign aid project to stop environmental degradation in Togo’s highlands.

So who were Mr Green and Mr Black?
We had a strong brand already with Whole Earth so we were tempted to use that brand on the chocolate, but all our packaging boasted ‘no added sugar’ so there was no way we could use this well-respected no sugar brand for a product that was 30% sugar. Also you can only stretch a brand so far before it loses its meaning and we already had organic baked beans, peanut butter, jam, bread, cola drinks, ramen, noodles brown rice and spaghetti sauce all crowding under the umbrella of the Whole Earth brand. Chocolate really was a category too far.

So one evening my wife Josephine Fairley and I put on our brainstorming caps. We dismissed all the obvious ‘green’ names such as ecochoc, biochoc, Nature’s Choc or chocorganico. We wanted something classier and with depth. Something that sounded like it had been around for a long time and was resolutely English. With Green we alluded to the organicness of the product without being too preachy and with ‘Black’s we referenced the ultra darkness of the product. Black is also a fashion colour – it implies style, elegance, no compromise. Also, we were export oriented and needed a name that could be pronounced in any European language. Whole Earth had been a nightmare in this respect, particularly in Japan.

Green & Black’s had the right ring. I rushed down to my computer, knocked up a rough design in 10 minutes and ran it off on my new colour printer. That still is the basic design of the packaging to this day.

It was not easy to sell chocolate in the natural foods sector, however organic and delicious, because there was strong ethical resistance to any product containing sugar – a resistance that we had done more than anyone else to foster. Since the 1960s Whole Earth had never used sugar in any of its products. But we gradually broke down this barrier, in part because we confronted the issue head on and printed a sugar health warning on the early packaging next to the ingredients list. It stated “n.b. this product contains sugar, which is associated with dental decay, obesity and obesity related illness. Enjoy good chocolate and keep your sugar consumption as low as possible by always choosing Green & Black’s, the chocolate with the highest cocoa solids and the lowest sugar content.”

The chocolate also sold well at Villandry, the Conran Shop, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, capturing London’s retail high ground. It was the first 70% solids eating chocolate and its rich flavour had instant gourmet appeal.

We had presented the product to Sainsbury’s – which at that time was Britain’s leading supermarket chain. Soon after Fate intervened when one evening a bar of Green & Black’s was being passed around at a Kensington dinner party and the guests asked Sir John Sainsbury why his Sainsbury’s stores didn’t stock this delicious chocolate. His wife asked him the same question, quite persistently we’ve been told, and the next day he asked his chocolate buyer about it, who could honestly say that he was on the case and had a sample on his desk, sir. We quickly got a listing in 20 stores and we grasped this opportunity to prove ourselves in the mass market.

Although quality and flavour were our two main marketable attributes in terms of repeat purchases, we educated the press and consumers on the ethical issues, emphasising the benefits to the African producers. In 1992 we were the first company to win the Ethical Consumers Award and gained the important support of the Women’s Environmental Network. Chocolate has for various reasons, a particular appeal to women. Ours was politically right on the button. One of the reasons women crave it sometimes is that it is Nature’s most concentrated source of magnesium, which relieves premenstrual tension. With Green & Black’s you get far and away the highest ratio of magnesium of any chocolate.

Because we paid fair and fixed prices and the growers were not exposed to dangerous chemicals we were guilt free and Togolese matriarchs benefited from the sale of every bar. A headline in The Independent summed it up: “Right on – And It Tastes Good, Too.”

My wife Jo was a green journalist, with a TV show on British Sky Broadcasting and a column in the Times, so she and I had the right credentials in the deep green community who were our core customers.

Sales were taking off and we launched a milk chocolate in 1993.

Then – A crisis!

There was a revolution in Togo when the military government refused to step down, despite losing the election. They shot up the suburbs of Lome and the French cut off aid, precipitating a strike at the ports because nobody was getting paid. We had to fly a container of cocoa beans out to our co packer in France and then fly the freshly made chocolate to Gatwick Airport, where a van was waiting to rush it to make our 2:30 delivery slot at Sainsbury’s. We didn’t need more of that kind of stress. So I started looking for a backup supply source in a more stable political environment.

In 1993 I contacted some old friends among the Maya in Belize and found that there was an opportunity to build a new relationship and launch a new product that could be the embodiment of organic and fair trade principles. There had been a cacao planting project there already and it was a classic example of the old development paradigm that is still being repeated worldwide.

Started by Britain’s Department for International Development in 1983 and taken over by USAID in 1986, the scheme was built on providing bank loans to encourage farmers to buy hybrid seeds and agrichemicals. Communal reservation land had to be broken up so that farmers could deposit deeds at the bank as collateral. It was based on clearing the forest and planting cacao trees very closely – as little as 8 to 10 feet apart. At this spacing there is little room for shade trees and fertilisers are essential, as are fungicides. The economics of the programme were carefully worked out, but everything stood on the foundation of a $1.75 per lb selling price, guaranteed by Hershey.

The programme finished in 1992 and the aid workers went off.

In October 1993 I spoke by phone to Justino Peck, the Chairman of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA), the cooperative that represents the Maya Indian cacao growers of southern Belize. At that time they were facing serious problems.

As soon as the aid workers had gone Hershey’s buying agent progressively reduced the price paid from $1.80 to $1.25 to 90¢ to 70¢ and finally to 55¢ a pound. This took place as the trees that had been planted were maturing, and farmers were confronted with the desperate need to make money to pay back the debts they had incurred at the local bank under the USAID-supported loan scheme. Many had to leave home to seek migrant work as orange pickers or sugar cane cutters on plantations in the north, just to earn enough money to service their debts and support their families in their home villages.

By 1993 total production had fallen to less than 20,000 lbs, generating a net income locally of only $11000. This was a disaster. People were abandoning their plantations and the jungle was taking over.

When we came along we needed a relationship that embodied that key word – SUSTAINABILITY. This was as important for us as a business as it was for our codependent producers. What does this mean in practice?

Rural poverty i.e. starvation, makes people migrate to cities, where they lead miserable lives. So we had to set a fair price that made it worthwhile to farm.
Food quality and food safety are sustainability issues – because they impinge directly on human health. Hungry people get ill – especially if they are regularly exposed to pesticides. The production of food has to be safe for the producers. It also has to be safe for consumers. You still regularly find lindane traces in conventional chocolate, despite it being banned in California, New York and throughout Europe because of its proven causative link to breast cancer.

The planet has limited resources and we’re using them up at an increasing rate. We need food production systems that preserve or augment the soil, increase biodiversity and restore forest cover, not the reverse.

Consumers don’t want to be part of the problem. They want manufacturers to help them be part of the solution to these problems and to relieve their feelings of despair, pessimism and helplessness over the disappearance of rain forests and indigenous cultures and global warming.

Organic farming delivers on all the above – it locks up carbon in the soil to the tune of 1 tonne per hectare per year, it stops erosion, it reduces greenhouse gas output, it eliminates pollution and it restores biodiversity. You get forest canopy into the bargain. Eventually the shade trees provide a secondary income that, over a 30 year period, can dwarf the income from cacao, especially if you grow mahogany or red cedar.

We worked out a new deal for a new product concept – MAYA GOLD – and made an offer to the TCGA.

  1. A five year rolling contract to be our primary supplier of organically grown cacao for use in Maya Gold chocolate, paying $1.75 per pound
  2. We helped them to obtain organic certification, a valuable asset in the Northern European market. Even if we fell by the wayside, this would still stand them in good stead with other purchasers.
  3. We advanced them $20000 in cash so that the farmer members were guaranteed ‘spot cash’ for the cacao they brought in.
  4. We trained key coop members in management accounting, correct fermentation and quality control to ensure the best quality cacao. A true quality chocolate cannot be made with just any old beans, especially a 70% cocoa mass product.

The deal was agreed and signed. Some British and UN aid workers there advised the Maya strongly against going ahead with us and particularly against going organic, which they said would be a disaster. However, we were offering 3 times the price, reduced chemical input costs and cash up front, so for the Maya it was a no brainer.

The Soil Association inspection was a success.

We also discovered that Big Falls Plantation, a large citrus plantation owned by the Commonwealth Development Corporation and controlled by the Department for International Development, had 70 acres of highly productive cacao which they found uneconomic to harvest. The manager had allowed a local women’s cooperative, the Poyonaam Women’s Group (Poyonaam = People of the Earth), to harvest the cacao, which they had done profitably in 1993.

But the CDC were talking about clearing it to plant grapefruit. We begged them to hold off and they referred me to their London HQ, but agreed to let the women take off the 1994 crop. We saw this as a great element in the story we had to tell as the leader of the women, Juanita Chee, was a charismatic and dynamic individual.
Things went well, from the producer point of view. The quantity and value of the cacao increased. Gross area income from cacao in 1993 of $11000 has grown by more than ten times and is now rising even more quickly.
How did we do it? What made Maya Gold a success?
Before we discussed anything with the TCGA, we discussed the Maya Gold concept with Sainsbury’s. They liked the idea and agreed to stock the product for six months when it was ready.

We also sought and gained Fairtrade Mark certification. The Fairtrade Foundation had been brought into existence by organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, and the Women’s Institutes to provide an independent third party consumer guarantee that a Third World product was genuinely traded according to internationally agreed fair trade principles. Maya Gold was the first product to bear the Mark. Various companies had looked at it and dismissed it as impractical. We took one look at the criteria – there was nothing there that we hadn’t already done.

Maya Gold was launched on March 7 1994 at a press conference at the Oxfam stand at the BBC Good Food Show in London. The same day BBC Newsround sent a film crew to Belize and came back with footage of Maya villagers harvesting cacao, and of their kids sitting licking their lips over the very first bars of Maya Gold, which we had given the film crew to take to Belize with them.
The several minutes of footage was on the afternoon and evening television news. It even made it onto Welsh language TV and CNN picked up on it and told the story worldwide.
Young Methodists did an Olympic style run for fair trade, carrying a torch in relays between various English towns, haranguing supermarkets and shops to stock our product. The senior confectionery buyer at Tesco – our biggest supermarket chain, phoned up to ask “Here, what’s this product all these vicars are calling me up about? You better come in and see me.”

We faced a few setbacks in Belize.

Regrettably, the CDC owned Big Falls Plantation decided to bulldoze the cacao, thereby depriving the Poyonaam women of a potential $22000 per year income.
My efforts on behalf of the Poyonaam women had been rebuffed and grapefruit was planted in the place of mature cacao. It turned out to be a lousy call on their part as grapefruit prices collapsed just as their new trees reached maturity.

The WHO malaria control programme in the district had a policy of spraying with DDT any houses and areas where malaria had been notified, and this posed a risk of contamination organic cacao. A few cases of contamination could have led to the loss of organic certification for the whole project. After much pressure from us, the health workers agreed to give 2 weeks’ notice of their intention to spray so that villagers could get their cocoa sacks, as well as their children and animals, out of the way before the sprayers come. Now the Maya have persuaded them to stop spraying altogether – malaria is not a problem – and DDT poisoning is a thing of the past.

There have been considerable unforeseen social as well as economic gains.

The production of cacao strengthens the position of women. Unlike rice, the important part of cacao production is the post-harvest processing. This is where women play a key role. The men’s role tends to be to plant, prune, harvest and bring the pods back to the village. The fermentation of the beans takes place in boxes next to the village houses and takes five days. Once the cacao is fermented, it must be dried in the sun, turned as needed, and brought in if it starts to rain. Women control both these processing operations. The result is that they get their hands on the cash generated by cacao, and this share in the wealth confers domestic and community power. Too often the cash from a crop of rice doesn’t find its way into the family budget – the man may spend it on beer or tools or a hybrid pig and enough Purina Chow to fatten it up.

Secondary education in Belize is free, but the nearest high school is in Punta Gorda town, 20 miles from the villages in the Maya Mountains. With only 2 busses a week, students had to board with families in Punta Gorda, at a significant cost. As a result of increased cacao income, many more students started going to high school, and there were so many doing so that a bus service was instituted on a daily basis to take them to school and back. Secondary education has increased from 10% of the kids to more than 70%.

Migratory bird populations have increased dramatically, reflecting increased forest cover and reduced pesticide residues. The Audubon Society and Flora and Fauna International have both recognised this and have asked us to extend the project into nature reserves that they control in Belize.
The TCGA has also become one of the main uniting forces in a community where there are two distinct cultural and language groups: the Kekchi Maya and their neighbours the Mopan Maya. Within the TCGA there is one shared goal – to sell Green & Black’s as much good quality cacao as possible and to earn as much money as they can for their membership. As with most free commercial activity, racial and religious considerations take second place to devotion to the almighty dollar.

The leaders of the TCGA have become respected figures in their local communities, consulting to ensure that the Maya speak with one voice on matters where their community has hitherto often been weak and divided. A few years ago a corrupt government natural resources minister took a bribe to permit a Taiwanese logging company to extract timber from 250,000 acres of pristine forest in the Maya Mountains. The strength of collaboration on the cacao project meant that the Kekchi and Mopan could not be set against each other on the logging proposal and they united successfully, under the cacao project leadership, to defeat it. The rain forest has been saved.

Not all the growers are Maya. There are white Americans and blacks of African origin and East Asians who are members of the coop. For them all it is a novel experience to work in situations where the Maya are in charge. The Maya, like most native Americans, were seen as the bottom of the pack. Now they are setting up outlying buying depots in non-Maya regions and impress everyone with their competence, confidence and their efficient handling of cocoa beans and money.

Every Maya village is sited on a river, which serves as bath and laundry. Skin diseases, rashes and blisters are a thing of the past now that chemical use has been abandoned. Even rice growers have now developed chemical free methods of production.

The women keep an eye on the fermentation, which takes place under the thatched eaves of village houses and of the drying, which takes place on groundsheets outside the houses. Fermentation of cocoa beans is a sophisticated art – the subtle variations between different batches are part of what gives complexity and character to our chocolate.

As I mentioned earlier, in 1993 the UK development aid people in Belize advised the growers not to go organic and not to sign our contract. They have now had a good rethink on this policy. Last year they UK Government’s Department for International Development gave us a £240,000 grant to help develop even more organic cocoa production in Belize. Fauna and Flora International have supported the growers cooperative with training and computers. A Dutch charity gave them a further £40000 to develop tree nurseries. We chipped in £240,000 of our own money for the project. The result- 100,000 new cacao trees planted since last October, plus double that number as shade trees to form a future rain forest canopy and wildlife habitat. 550,000 seedlings in the nurseries, ready to be planted out in the next few years.

Last year we decided it was time to advertise, at least in London, where we had the distribution and the consumer profile that justified a spend. So in March and October last year and last March we spent about £400,000 on a Londonwide advertising campaign, focusing on the Underground. We had 2 ad cards in every carriage of every train in the system, as well as cross track posters and some saturation escalator posters. Somehow we managed to seem better than our competitors – without seeming holier than thou, pious or condescending.

Again, we emphasise the difference without being too blatant. The woman has just tasted Green & Black’s for the first time – drops her shopping, the world drifts by as she is swallowed up in the experience. Later on she’ll read the wrapper more closely and discover its organic, fairtrade and ethical virtues, right now she’s just having a ‘be here now’ chocolate moment. Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times, postulated that chocolate attaches to the same receptors as marijuana, but instead of stimulating them it slows them down. So instead of losing short term memory and being ‘cool’ you wallow in short term memory and the emotions they contain and become sensual and sentimental. Hence chocolate’s popularity in romantic situations, particularly Valentine’s Day.

So where are we now?
In 1999, as an undercapitalised entrepreneur, I had pretty much gone as far as I could go with our limited financial resources and in the face of the need to become increasingly professional. With Whole Earth and Green & Black’s we had a couple of $10 million brands but lacked the resources to maximise their growth potential. So when William Kendall, who had just built up and sold the New Covent Garden Soup Company a year earlier, offered to buy a 75% share in Green & Black’s I said yes. With an infusion of new capital and highly motivated top calibre management we have maintained a growth rate of 50% per annum. Last year we sold off the Whole Earth brand and in Green & Black’s alone we now have an $80 million brand, but expect it to double again in the next two years. Several of our new management team were INSEAD graduates and all had blue chip backgrounds such as Glaxo, KPMG, Tesco and United Biscuits. The new team got stuck right into the ethical core of the business from day one. In fact they joined the company precisely because they wanted to work in an ethical environment but also had normal healthy professional ambitions and saw joining us as a strategic career move. In the war for talent to get the best employees, what would well have been a negative a few years earlier was an extra magnet. More recently we have attracted key sales people from Lindt, our main competitor in the premium chocolate market – these are sales people who know how to sell chocolate and could see which way the wind is blowing.
We are also taking off in the USA. In the UK we had first mover advantage which can never be underestimated in achieving a strong market position.
However in the US we came into the market late.

Just over a year ago in the organic market we had climbed into 5th place behind Newman’s Own – whose message is they give their profits to charity, Endangered Species, who give a percentage of sales to wildlife charities, Sharffenberger – based in Berkeley and very foodie and hip, and Chocolove who major on being Belgian and luxurious. That was then.

With 380% year on year growth we’ve moved up the charts. In the 4 weeks to the end of February we were the Number 2 brand, just behind Newman’s Own.

Our latest research from SPINS, the natural sector version of Neilsen’s shows that with only 40% penetration, compared to 90% for Newmans and Endangered Species, in the 4 week period ending February 21st this year our dark chocolate was the best selling single product. Last month we went into all branches of Wild Oats, a 100-supermarket natural food chain – so I can say with some confidence that we are now America’s leading organic chocolate brand – and we still have barely 50% market penetration. It’s also worth noting here that all the top selling SKUs in the US natural foods market are dark chocolate. When you look at the chocolate market overall – 90% of all chocolate sold is milk chocolate. In the natural and organic market consumers are well ensconced at the gourmet, quality, intense flavour end of the spectrum.

Last year Cadbury Schweppes bought the shares of the business. have been committed to supporting the Green & Black’s principles in respect of organics, fair trade and corporate social responsibility. Some people have said that ultimately we will have engineered a sort of reverse take over, on a cultural level, of the world’s largest confectionery company. Remember that they were founded on the Quaker belief that a steaming cup of cocoa would help wean the working classes off beer and gin. There are still no pubs in Bournville, the town they built as their corporate HQ, manufacturing base and for housing their workers!

When you’re doing something good it’s best not to brag about it – much better if you can just let your reputation precede you. There are plenty of people in the social responsibility business who can give you a good reference, starting with certifying NGOs such as the Soil Association, the Fairtrade Foundation, the Forestry Stewardship Council and Ethical Consumers Association. Government initiatives, like the failing European Eco Label, don’t inspire consumer trust. NGOs do. The press never tire of a good story about how you can do good and do well at the same time.

1994 was the 10th anniversary of Maya Gold and of the Fairtrade Foundation. During March we had 100s of volunteers in shops up and down the country sampling our Maya Gold chocolate, giving their time freely to support our work. The press coverage we’ve had has been extraordinary and is generating even more. For those among you who were in Britain and saw this barrage of publicity – I hope you agree that, like our chocolate, it was all done in the very best possible taste.

The Observer Food Monthly sent Andrew Purvis to Belize to see how things were going – his report is here.

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