Christopher Boodoosingh is anxious. After days of testing that would make most diabetics shudder, he’s ready to show his latest confection (a secret new ice cream) to his chief taster: his five-year-old daughter. She is reputed to be a harsh, but fair assessor of quality.
Amid the usual chorus in favour of diversification, Boodoosingh is one of the few who have demonstrated international success with his chocolate company, Cocoa Republic, hoovering up a host of awards (2019 EY Entrepreneur of the Year, 2017 International Chocolate Award winner, Academy of Chocolate Silver amongst others) and steadily growing his company’s international presence.
Very impressive. But cocoa and chocolate have long been hailed as a comparative advantage. Why then have so few been able to profit from it?
“I keep hearing people say that cocoa is a good idea, cocoa has money in it, we have the best cocoa in the world. Yes, Trinitario cocoa is a very rare variety and TT grows the best Trinitario cocoa in the world.
“But it is also some of the most expensive in the world. Most commercial chocolate is therefore prohibited from using cocoa from Trinidad.”
If we can’t tap that market, where is the value created?
“Because Trinidadian cocoa is used for luxury chocolates our chocolate doesn’t get sold in bodegas (convenience stores) in NYC. Instead they are sold as precious and prized gifts and are treated like fine whiskey.”
“TT chocolatiers should hone their skills and focus on creating luxury, high-end creations. Think Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.”
“When we first started making chocolate at Cocoa Republic, we wanted to make everything and sell to everyone. We were super aggressive at trying to find customers all over the world. From Sweden, to Japan, to Saudi Arabia, you name it we sent chocolate to some distributor.”
“We only really started to extract value by becoming laser focused on our position within the industry. We now spend 90 per cent of our time, energy and resources focused on a handful of customers. We have also narrowed our geographical focus to a few cities.”
We have lots of talented chocolatiers. How do they scale and get to market?
“Covid19 has changed the world forever, and one thing that is clear is that retail sales will be declining into the near and possibly long-term future.”
“Most gift shopping is migrating online.”
“Right now, there are local online platforms such as Planting Seeds where chocolate makers can find and reach that local base directly. We should leverage those platforms to learn about our (local) customer base, then apply that skill set to international e-commerce stores like Amazon.”
“But is a common misconception that e-commerce allows your brand to reach new customers. This is only partially true. E-commerce is more of a platform for reaching existing customers. If you get listed on Amazon and you have a thousand loyal fans living in the US, you will get thousands of sales every month. But if you had zero US fans in the first place, your online sales won’t be all that much.”
“Some of us (in the Caribbean) have relatives in New York or went to school in Canada or have cousins in China. This is the knowledge and relationships that gives someone an advantage in a particular export market. At Cocoa Republic our focus has always been California since I was able to develop relationships when I lived there.”
“This is the missing link on how to scale US sales, and the knowledge that most local chocolate makers lack.”
Boodoosingh’s sentiments reminded me of his speech at last year’s TT Chamber of Commerce awards, in which he called for local companies to come together to compete with the world instead of competing for our small market. More cheese than chocolate I admit. But it got a standing ovation from that crowd of slightly embarrassed looking, ruthless businesspeople.
“Most of all, if we really want to increase the value in the cocoa and chocolate industry, we need to plant more cocoa trees starting now. This is the source of the entire value chain, and with all the international buyers from Japan and Europe, who are already in love with our beans, it's becoming more different to source sufficient quantities of cocoa beans for any large operation.”
“That’s why Cocoa Republic plans to plant over one million more cocoa trees over the next five years to raise the national output of cocoa production. These trees, once mature and well managed will double the current national output of cocoa bean production.”
Provided, of course, his daughter gives him the thumbs up.
Disclosure: the author is a minority investor in an affiliate of Cocoa Republic LLC
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh