Interview With Cocoanect, Specialty Cacao Importer In Europe

The European response to the American Uncommon Cacao is in the Netherlands.
Since 2014, small chocolate makers in Europe can count on a trusted interlocutor to find quality cacao of different origins all around the world: Cocoanect.

Cocoanect represents a high-rank aggregator for all chocolate makers and cacao grinders demanding specialty cacao beans for their fine chocolate products. Much more than a cacao trading company, the Dutch importing hub is partnering with farmer groups to set up sustainability programs and connect them with craft chocolate makers. To realize this, Cocoanect has a dedicated team in Rotterdam to support farmer groups with attracting co-funding and partners, and permanent field staff in origins to support the implementation of programs. Today, Cocoanect is sourcing fine flavor cacaos from different tropical regions in the world—spanning from Latin America to Africa and Asia. Thanks to their curated social media activity, I came into contact with Cocoanect and inquired about their mission and operativeness.

 
Foodensity: Who and what inspired the mission of your service as a fine flavor cacao importer and distributor?

Cocoanect: Cocoanect started back in 2014. Though we’re still a young company, most of our staff have a background and an extensive network in either cocoa or chocolate. This allowed us to quickly establish ourselves as a reliable partner to both our farmer groups and our customers, and we have grown far beyond our expectations in a short time-span.
Our mission is to build dedicated supply chains. We are called Cocoanect for a reason: we connect cocoa farmers, cocoa exporters, chocolate makers, and chocolate aficionados. We pride ourselves in our direct ties to the origins, and the stability and market we can create to farmers by mobilizing and connecting them to development organizations, exporters, and eventually specific clients. Several of our Rotterdam staff members have lived themselves in (or even originate from) West-Africa, Latin America and Asia, and therefore understand the needs of our farmer groups. To build a stronger and more trustful relationship with these farmers, we are pioneering various sustainability projects in collaboration with public and private organizations, for example with improved cook stoves, biodiversity-friendly farming practices, and micro-credit services for women cooperatives.
The bulk cocoa and fine cocoa industry might look very different from a flavor and volume perspective, but there are many similarities and opportunities to create more value in both supply chains. Eventually, most cocoa farmers are facing similar issues when it comes to poverty, degrading farms, or environmental losses, whether they come from a Pacific island or West Africa. The bulk cocoa allows us to establish a robust infrastructure with staff in major cocoa origins, which can then be used to initiate partnerships with smaller groups of fine or flavor producers in (surrounding) regions as well. For most fine or flavor traders such interventions would be simply too costly because of their small operational scale. By combining both markets, we can pay more attention to the needs of our farmer producers, and help them to sell their beans.

Foodensity: Do you trade and import what type of cacao beans? And, do you sell only cacao beans or even semi-finished products worked by origin processors?

Cocoanect: For our specialty cocoa clients, we have established partnerships with cooperatives and fermentaries, which work sustainably (often organic), are continously improving their quality, and provide a good work environment and fair pay for their workers and farmers.
Kokoa Kamili is a great example. Simran and Brian set-up this fermentary in the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania. They collect wet cocoa from neighboring farmers, and ferment and dry the cocoa beans using a strict protocol. This has led to a vast increase in quality, resulting in a higher market price for farmers. At Cocoanect, we are working on different development funds to further support the great work of Kokoa Kamili. We, in turn, are happy to have created long-term dedicated suppliers, and to supply a growing number of chocolate makers these delicious beans so they can add a Tanzania bar to their collection of different origins.

We also established a partnership with the Union de Coopératives Lazan’ny Sambirano (UCLS), which is a union of cooperatives in Madagascar. The fact that we as a trading house can buy large quantities is a real game changer for this newly formed coalition of 23 cooperatives. It provides a secure off-set, and facilitates the implementation of sustainability schemes such as Rainforest Alliance or organic practices. Moreover, together with the French development organization International Solidarity for Development and Investment (SIDI), we ensured access to financial credit lines which the union now uses to expand export activities. Finally, we present these wonderful fruity beans to our craft chocolate makers; a win-win for all stakeholders in the supply chain.
Other origins we have available include Costa Rica, Haiti, DR Congo, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. This network is expanding rapidly. Stories about these fine cocoa beans and their origin can be found on our website: cocoanect.com/specialtycocoa.

So far, we are only trading cocoa beans. Most fine or flavor suppliers are too small to set-up grinding facilities. Also, many chocolate makers prefer to follow their own recipe and like to experiment with different roasting and grinding techniques. For the bulk, most chocolate companies and exporters already have their own grinding facilities, but who knows what the future brings.

Foodensity: How is your organization structured at level of the operations along the chain (from sourcing to selling)?

Cocoanect: We are headquartered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, but our network spans across the globe. To create added value to our suppliers, implement sustainability initiatives and increase quality control, we have teams in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Ecuador.
Whenever we find a possibly interesting new supplier of cocoa beans, our procurement manager, Jochem Willekes, usually heads over there first. He grew up in Indonesia and Latin America, and set-up various export facilities in cocoa and coffee so he knows the daily operations and difficulties very well. We buy mainly straight from cooperatives, so it is important to check whether the local business is sufficiently structured and organized to link them to our clients, and of course to identify how we can support them in reaching this level if this is not the case yet.
The specialty cocoa beans are always sampled in our cocoa lab by our Italian fine flavor expert Mirko Bellocchio. He makes chocolate (which is often quickly devoured by the rest of the team) to check whether the beans have been properly fermented and dried, and to explore flavors patterns that can be translated into a chocolate bar. By knowing our beans, we can advise our customers which beans suit their expectations best; a nutty bean from Venezuela or Ecuador, or a fruity Peruvian one, for instance.

We’re always looking to source new cocoa beans, as we know chocolate makers are eager to explore new flavors and cocoa producers are looking for customers. We’re a strong believer in connecting experts, whether it’s in cocoa farming, fermentation, logistics, or chocolate making; together we can make the craft chocolate industry stronger.

If chocolate makers want to learn more about the cocoa we have on offer, they can contact our specialty cocoa specialist Mirko Bellocchio at specialtycocoa@cocoanect.com or give him a call at (+31)107603113.

We are also on
Twitter: @cocoanectbv,
Instagram: @cocoanectbv.

cocoanect.com

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