Cultivating Partnerships

Reading under a Tree
Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett
Warren Edward Buffett, born August 30, 1930 in Omaha, Nebraska, United States, is an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist. He is the most successful investor in the world. Net worth: 66.7 billion USD (2015) Forbes | Photo: Warren Buffett | Link | Warren Buffett, Business Magnate, Wealth, Money, Investor, Business, Billionaire, Philanthropist, Nebraska,

Interconnectedness to Empower Communities

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” —Warren Buffett, American Investor and Philanthropist

Partnerships are often credited for innovation and success, stemming from the belief in a shared interconnectedness, from people of the Pacific Northwest, to the people in the islands of Belize, to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most notably, success is found within companies founded by passionate individuals who strive to supply a quality product by partnering with experts in cultivating the raw materials to create that product, the farmers who grow these crops in a sustainable manner. Seattle, Washington is the proud home of two of these companies, Theo Chocolate and Caffe Vita; both strive to create not only a quality product, but also a sustainable livelihood for the farmers who grow the crops, with the common aspiration to create a more compassionate and sustainable world.


It is the “inspired people who work in the factory every day…” During the early product development, it was “a small number of us around a table with a bottle of wine; now there are talented people in the kitchen, [full] of ideas.”—Joe Whinney, Founder of Theo Chocolate

To Joe Whinney, Founder of Theo Chocolate, Theo is “more than chocolate. It’s about the land, the people, the dedication and the interconnected relationships that bind us all.” Theo, named after the species of chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao, was an expression of Whinney’s love of cocoa and the cocoa tree; “Theo” was short and sweet. Originally, Whinney had looked into developing an organic chocolate company in Boston, Massachusetts; however, Boston had the attitude, “if it was a good idea, someone would have [already] done it.” For Whinney, Seattle was the perfect fit; Seattle had always been a favorite city of Whinney’s, where the culture and spirit of entrepreneurship was the deciding factor. What inspired Whinney to create Theo was understanding that the only way to impact the world was to control the brand, the message, and the supply chain. Whinney was the pioneer in bringing organic cocoa beans into the United States, developing the first organic and Fair Trade chocolate company in the country.

The journey began when Whinney was in his early twenties, taking a “grand adventure,” sailing to the islands of Belize; there, he volunteered with a small conservation group, working with local farmers to harvest crops, growing cacao. Cacao grows under tall, canopy trees, surrounded by “amazing animals and sounds.” Whinney soon “fell in love with the land and the people farming there,” realizing how “fun and smart” the farmers were, knowing the landscape because they were so in touch with the environment, seeing things that he couldn’t. Amidst the beautiful rainforest, Whinney began to feel a “magical experience” within his incredible journey. Whinney had always loved chocolate, but after this experience, he developed a “connection… to [this] magical food.”

As Theo Chocolate was the pioneer in bringing organic chocolate into the market, Caffe Vita, which began roasting coffee since 1995 as an independent, locally-owned company, was the pioneer of the Farm Direct movement (a “pursuit of exceptional coffees that meet high standards of environmental and social sustainability”), searching for the best coffees around the world, by cultivating partnerships with coffee farmers committed to environmental and social sustainability, placing an importance in having a fully traceable path from farm to roaster, at every stage of the supply chain. Caffe Vita has developed close relationships with coffee farmers and cooperatives in more than 11 countries, including Sumatra. As Daniel Shewmaker, Caffe Vita Green Coffee Buyer, accounts, Sumatra has always been important for coffee, especially for Caffe Vita, as the region offers a desired coffee, not found anywhere else in the world. Sumatra was the first region Caffe Vita travelled to, and purchased coffee from, as the cooperative has supplied a consistent quality of coffee beans. Caffe Vita has established an outstanding relationship with the cooperative, particularly in raising $10,000 (by matching donations collected at the Caffe Vita cafes) for earthquake relief, when an earthquake hit the region in July of 2013. To Shewmaker, it is this “powerful influence of flavor” which makes the Sumatra coffee so unique, making it highly valued by many coffee companies.

Transparency in Certification

To Shewmaker, the coffee trade is a complex system, involving a myriad of people. Coffee can be collected, change hands, and traded multiple times, depending on the place of origin, many times, from remote areas. Shewmaker believes the supply chain must be transparent, verifying the grower or cooperative groups, in order to ensure the origin of the coffee, not only to benefit the consumers, but also the coffee farmers. Caffe Vita places an imperative for the coffee farmers to receive a price that “allows them to sustain and improve their land, family, and community.” Shewmaker comments, if businesses do not allow sustainability to improve the livelihood for the farmers, we would be supporting an unjust system; from a business standpoint, the farmers cannot continue growing premium coffee, depleting the supply of quality coffee to the coffee companies. As Shewmaker notes, for success, every party involved “along the chain should be profitable.” Coffee is an undervalued crop, as the price of coffee does not reflect the true cost, a “disparity between the consumer countr[ies] and growing countr[ies].” In growing a high quality product, coffee companies, such as Caffe Vita, can offer the farmers and cooperative groups a higher premium, giving the farmers incentive to continue sustainable farming practices, to improve their livelihoods.

Theo also places an imperative in ensuring to consumers the quality of the products they are purchasing, while creating a just human rights. Theo works with Fair for Life, a neutral, third-party, which certifies the entire supply chain; other certifiers only certify at the farm level, with no guarantees for the factory. Fair for Life certification ensures fair and positive relationships among the parties involved, assuring that human rights are guaranteed at every stage of production, where workers enjoy fair working conditions, and smallholder farmers receive a fair share. According to Fair for Life, “Fair trade improves the livelihood of thousands of smallholder farmers and workers by providing the means for social community projects and empowerment of people.” Most importantly, fair trade creates “long-term and trustful cooperation between partners, transparent price setting, open negotiations and prices that allow for social development…” improving the “social conditions of those groups who are most deprived…”

Journey into Cultivating Partnerships

What Whinney saw during his “grand adventure,” was the injustice and exploitation of these farmers, which acted as the catalyst for Whinney wanting to make a difference in how we should conduct our business practices, as well as helping the farmers and their families. What Whinney learned from his experience with the Central American farmers was the rampant impoverishment, not only within the cacao farmers, but those of different crops in the Tropics. The average cacao farmer earns $1 a day, where 80 percent of those farmers and their families are malnourished. To Whinney, it was unfair for the farmers who worked hard every day, harvesting crops that were undervalued. Whinney sought to create a premium market for the crop, making a product that people loved, in order to increase the value, therefore, increasing the farmers’ wages. Whinney stresses how imperative it is for the farmers and their families to be healthy; farmers cannot take care of their families if they do not have enough food.

Whinney originally wanted to help the farmers sell their cocoa beans to the US, therefore, helping their economy to improve their lives, with one simple concept: “the world wants organic chocolate [where he knew] farmers who would be happy to sell and supply it.” Whinney believes that the farmers are Theo’s partners; in this partnership, creating and establishing a good relationship with farming groups is crucial. From the business standpoint, to produce great chocolate, a good, consistent, high-quality supply of cocoa beans is a necessity, where the company pays a higher premium for excellent quality beans. In sustaining a close relationship, it ensures the quality meets Theo’s standards, selling the chocolate at a higher price, while paying farmers more for the high-quality beans. That relationship helps not only the farmers’ success, but Theo’s as well.

Caffe Vita’s intimate relationship with the smaller farming groups and cooperatives also ensures quality coffee beans, as Caffe Vita can pay these farmers and cooperatives a higher premium. As Caffe Vita describes, in working with smaller farming groups, Caffe Vita proudly offers coffees of single origin, which “highlight the diversity of flavor profiles that exist throughout the world… specific to an individual farm, cooperative, or distinct growing region.”

The PNG YUS (both single origin and farm direct) is an exclusive roast from the YUS (Yopno, Uruwa, and Som main rivers which flow through the rugged and remote Huon Peninsula) Conservation Area of Papua New Guinea, a result of the collaboration between the Woodland Park Zoo (with the mission to save animals and their habitats through conservation leadership and engaging experiences) and the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP, which fosters wildlife and habitat conservation and supports local community livelihoods in Papua New Guinea through global partnerships and scientific research). As Shewmaker accounts, Woodland Park Zoo Senior Conservation Scientist, Dr. Lisa Dabek, PhD, had been working in Papua New Guinea for 20 years, who established the first conservation area in Papua New Guinea to conserve the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo. Dr. Dabek worked with the community, consisting of approximately 30 villages, to allot land, which was still owned by the indigenous people in remote areas; over time, the indigenous people began to understand the importance of conservation. To Shewmaker, establishing the first conservation area of over 180,000 acres of “really beautiful land” was remarkable, as the area is in tremendous threat of deforestation.

A livelihood program for the indigenous people was established, as an incentive for the people to allot protected land. Since this program was community-based conservation, the villagers needed a sustainable source of income; living in such remote areas, they had no access to market places, without being exploited, due to their lack of resources. Coffee was the main cash crop, although agro-forestry was also a part of the villagers creating a livelihood. TKCP had approached Caffe Vita in 2010 with samples of coffee, which at the time, was not of the quality Caffe Vita was seeking. However, more research on the growing conditions of the area was done: elevations, climate, and soil, as Caffe Vita recognized the potential.

Caffe Vita then developed workshops in the region, focusing on coffee quality, the health of the trees, processing, and consistency of drying the cherries properly (which was the main issue that had to be addressed). Caffe Vita supplied coffee racks in order for the cherries to be properly dried, yielding consistently quality coffee beans; Caffe Vita was not only able to help develop an organic supply chain, but also create a sustainable livelihood for the local people; by offering the farmers above price for the coffee beans, it creates a “worthwhile endeavor.” The next step was getting the coffee to the market, since the coffee originated from such a remote area; little planes (seating a maximum of six people) are often used to transport the coffee.

To Shewmaker, the PNG YUS is “nearest and dearest to my heart,” as this partnership has been “really rewarding, but challenging,” recognizing the immense amount of work at every stage, from reaching this remote area and “connecting with [the people] by working on the ground,” to finding a way to get the coffee to the market, being “hands on to discover the supply chain,” and witnessing the rewards from that diligence. In a short amount of time, Shewmaker was able to see the farmers send their children to school, many completing a secondary education, something rare in these communities. To Shewmaker, it is “interesting how coffee can play a [large] role” in shaping and improving lives, while also preserving the environment and biodiversity.

Biodiversity and Sustainability

The PNG YUS coffee is grown under native shade “in the gardens of those who have pledged their land for conservation,” as coffee is traditionally cultivated under a canopy of trees. Native shade refers to the native species of larger trees which provide the shade for coffee to grow. Shewmaker continues, if the environment is healthy and diverse, the coffee can be grown completely organic; a diverse environment attracts native species of birds, who contribute nutrients for the coffee crops; the birds also act as beneficial predator, and their presence is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. The Papua New Guinea YUS region has an environment naturally conducive to growing coffee.

To Whinney, partnership entails a dedication to the land and the people. Whinney places a high responsibility upon Theo, as it is “in a unique position to have a larger impact,” where we all must be “mindful and committed to the land that produces the cacao for this generation,” as well as future generations. This entails educating farmers and future generations of farmers, and providing higher wages, so that they can be healthy, able to grow and harvest high-quality crops; these factors create a stronger supply chain, which creates a stronger business, producing a quality product.

The dedication to the land translates to the support of biodiversity, which is key to producing quality cocoa beans; a diverse environment is required for trees to be fertile. What is stressed is “vertical diversity,” which constitutes different tree layers, supporting different ecosystems and species of life. The layers, or communities, present variations in biotic (activities of living organisms in an environment, where that action affects the life of another organism) and abiotic (non-living components affecting living organisms) factors, which help to create diversification of ecological niches, as well as creating an opportunity for the emergence of diverse organisms during the evolutionary process.

What is vital for the biodiversity of cocoa trees lies within the nutrients they consume through the compost derived from leaf litter and animal droppings; the more diverse species, the richer the compost for the trees to quickly absorb. The overall health of the land is dependent upon the biodiversity of that land. The farmers grow cacao as part of an intercrop system; the cacao helps to create a diverse landscape, so that the farmers can use the other crops as food and cash crops, acting as a “stock portfolio.”

Opportunity for the Democratic Republic of Congo

Cultivating partnerships result in creating opportunities. For example, Whinney’s first trip to Africa was life changing, as his environmental concerns grew as strong as his concern for people. What was outstanding for Whinney to see in Ghana (the second largest cacao producer) was a willingness for farmers to take initiative to learn; meetings were replete with people taking the time, wanting to learn about organic farming, so that they can produce a better yield of crops, therefore, producing a better life for themselves.

Although the DRC has been notorious as a war-torn country, rampant with corruption, it is also a region for opportunity. Whinney was approached by the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), an advocacy group devoted to raising public awareness of the tremendous need of the region, with hopes of establishing Congolese-led programs to build safe and sustainable communities, to “spark economic development” in the region.

Whinney made his first trip to Congo in December of 2010, amazed by the incredible resilience of the people, with the mindset that things can improve. The Theo team developed a training program for the Congolese cacao farmers during the Spring of 2011, launching its first ever series of chocolate bars made entirely of Congolese cocoa, where proceeds benefit the ECI, allowing Theo to support cacao farmers in Eastern Congo; Whinney mentions the “Congo Pili Pili Chili” chocolate bar, utilizing Eastern Congo’s vanilla and Pili Pili spicy pepper. Whinney was humbled after seeing the vast transformation of the war-torn country, rampant with malnutrition, into one of economic opportunity; farmers can send their children to school; the annual income of cacao farmers has doubled. Joe Whinney’s hope is for awareness; “we cannot ignore millions of people suffering,” but we can make a change.

According to Theo Chocolate, Congolese cocoa comprises 70 percent of Theo Chocolate’s cocoa supply. People can support the cacao farmers in Congo, simply by enjoying a Theo Chocolate dessert at 11 Portland, Oregon restaurants and bakeries, as a part of the third annual Chocolate for Congo Benefit, sponsored by the Never Again Coalition (a Portland, Oregon-based organization that has joined together different organizations to stand together and work towards ending genocide and other crimes against humanity), where one dollar from each purchase is donated to the ECI, the entire month of March.

Caffe Vita also offers opportunity for the Congolese people. A single origin coffee Shewmaker excitedly speaks of is the Congo Tsheya, fondly accounting the first time he tasted coffee from the DRC. Shewmaker first tasted this “amazing coffee” in the western border of Uganda, where people originally fled Congo to sell their coffee. As Caffe Vita accounts, in the past, farmers had to smuggle their coffee into neighboring Rwanda as there were no resources available in the DRC. Shewmaker continues, in crossing into Rwanda, people would often drown.

The conditions for growing coffee in the DRC are ideal, producing an “amazing, delicious, unique coffee.” Shewmaker made his initial trip to Uganda, cupping the coffee (to determine the taste, flavor, fragrance, and aroma), where Caffe Vita was interested. However, due to logistical challenges (securing and transporting the coffee into the US), it wasn’t until last year when Caffe Vita was able to source a high quality lot from the Solidarité Paysanne pour la Promotion des Actions Café et Développement Intégral (SOPACDI) cooperative in South Kivu. Caffe Vita is roasting the coffee and selling it to Theo to develop a chocolate bar. Shewmaker continues, Caffe Vita has future plans to travel to the DRC in efforts to increase the volume of purchase, as well as working more extensively with the coffee farmers. ECI is in the process of building washing stations (to wash the cherries before drying) in the DRC, which has the potential to improve the livelihood for the Congolese people.

Empowering Local Organizations

Theo and Caffe Vita have created opportunity for sustainable livelihoods for distant regions; however, these companies are also passionate in creating a more compassionate and sustainable Pacific Northwest. Whinney is extremely proud of Theo’s partnership with FareStart (a restaurant and caterer, which offers culinary job and hospitality training for homeless and disadvantaged individuals at a grassroots level, which has transformed the lives of approximately 6,000 people, serving over five million meals to disadvantaged men, women and children). In celebration of FareStart’s 20th anniversary in 2012, a dozen trainees from FareStart teamed with Theo confectioners, designing the savory FareStart Mirepoix (the classic aromatics in French cooking) caramel collection, featuring a caramelized Walla Walla onion, carrot coriander, celery herb, and bay fennel caramel. $1 from each box sold benefitted FareStart’s job training program; the collection was launched on October 1, 2012.

Caffe Vita is also proud to partner with the local community, helping to raise money for local organizations and their efforts; Theo Chocolate is only one company whom opportunities can overlap. The Woodland Park Zoo is another organization which Caffe Vita partners, developing the Zoo Special Reserve. As Caffe Vita accounts, the shade-grown, organic, and Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee originates from a farm in the Santa Rosa district of Guatemala, where the farmers promote biodiversity by allotting over 40 percent of the land to devote as a nature reserve, protecting habitats of native tropical animals and birds, including the gray fox, armadillos, anteaters, parrots, and butterflies. With a laugh, Shewmaker notes, Caffe Vita wanted to develop a coffee which could be sold, and also support the zoo. Since the coffee grown in a region which protects the habitat and wildlife, the collaboration between Caffe Vita, the Woodland Park Zoo, and the farmers in Guatemala was natural. Caffe Vita donates $1 to the Woodland Park Zoo for every bag purchased, while paying a premium to the farmers in Guatemala.

Caffe Vita also partnered with Wolf Haven International (a nationally recognized wolf sanctuary which has rescued and provided a lifetime home for approximately 200 displaced, captive-born animals since 1982) in 2014, where Caffe Vita donated $2 of each bag of their limited release Mexican Sierra Sur de Oaxaca single origin coffee, to support Mexican wolf recovery efforts. The partnership began with Seattle, Washington-based photographer, Annie Marie Musselman (who was awarded the Getty Images Grant for Good, where she selected Wolf Haven as the focus for her photography), who contacted her friend, who works with Caffe Vita. Caffe Vita donated several big ticket items for Wolf Haven’s annual fundraiser, Wolves & Wine; as a follow-up, Caffe Vita decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the Mexican Sierra Sur de Oaxaca single origin coffee.

Shewmaker also mentions Caffe Vita’s partnership with Stewardship Partners, which helps private landowners restore and preserve the natural landscapes within Washington State. As Caffe Vita accounts, Stewardship Partners and Washington State University (WSU) launched a campaign to install 12,000 Rain Gardens throughout the Puget Sound region by 2016; the project captures, filters, and infiltrates 160 million gallons of polluted runoff, which would otherwise flow untreated into the waters of the Puget Sound. Ten percent of the purchase of the all organic, shade-grown coffee blend, originating from Ethiopia, Guatemala, and East Timor, helps to protect the Puget Sound from polluted runoff.

Although many of the farmers who grow our chocolate and coffee may live in remote areas all around the world, we all have a connection. We can all have a part in creating a more sustainable world, preserving the breathtaking landscapes of vast regions, as well as helping these farmers, by perhaps paying a little more when purchasing quality chocolate and coffees from companies, who then pay the farmers a premium for their crops. Companies such as Theo Chocolate and Caffe Vita are pioneers in supporting the farmers who are committed to growing valuable crops, in a sustainable way, conscious of our environment and biodiversity; we all have the capability to join their journey in creating a lasting legacy of hope, sustainability, community, and interconnectedness.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:01 PM EDT | More details


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