Though chocolate may seem like a sweet biz, it’s long been plagued by social and environmental problems—but Ayissi Nyemba is working to change that, one cocoa bean at a time
Growing up on a cacao plantation in Cameroon, Ayissi Nyemba wasn’t sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was certain about one thing, though. “I need to create an impact in whatever I’m doing,” she says.
Her great-grandparents were the first in the family to farm cacao beans, followed by her grandfather and father, but Nyemba’s parents didn’t want her or her five siblings to follow in their farming footsteps. “It’s very challenging,” she says. “You don’t make a lot of revenue out of it. You have to be dedicated, and it’s hard work."Nyemba’s parents sent her and her siblings to school in France. There, she completed an undergraduate degree in marketing and also studied at École Chocolat, receiving Professional Chocolatier and Maitre Chocolatier designations, before moving to Quebec to pursue a master’s degree in marketing.
After watching a documentary about Vancouver and learning about (among other things) the city’s extraordinary beauty and mild weather, in 2015 she packed her bags once more and headed to British Columbia. To Nyemba, Vancouver seemed like the perfect city for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit. “I just felt like this was the place to start things,” she says. “I need my creativity to be challenged. I need to be in a place where entrepreneurs are getting together and trying to build things.”
That move led directly to a hectic period in Nyemba’s life: she gave birth to her son, learned to speak English and also came up with the idea for her company, EMKAO Foods. Driven by a desire to help farmers in Cameroon get out of poverty by growing cacao sustainably, she set up EMKAO Foods to import cocoa beans from Cameroon into Canada and process them for distribution. But the beans would all be single-source, traceable and organic, and the farmers would be paid fairly. She started by sourcing cacao from the place she knew best: Kotou Farm, owned by her parents.
Most of the world’s cacao comes from poorer nations such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador and Cameroon, and the vast majority of cacao farmers live below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line. Driven by desperation, cacao farmers sometimes pull their children out of school to help with the farming work, and this lack of education continues the cycle of poverty.
Desperate farmers contribute to deforestation and forest degradation by clearing forested land to plant ever more cacao trees. And because these trees are extremely sensitive to heat and drought, the acceleration of climate change has made the farmers’ livelihoods even more precarious, trapping them in a cycle of continuously clearing more land to plant more trees.
Paying farmers fairly allows children to stay in school and agricultural practises to be improved. Fairly compensated farmers can afford to do things like plant shade trees, which drastically improve growing conditions for the cacao, and diversify their income sources. They can also pursue organic certification, which is so expensive that many farmers who use organic farming methods cannot afford to get certified.
In years with a small harvest, even the fair trade price might be insufficient. According to Nyemba, “The fair trade price, sometimes it’s not enough. It’s good, but it’s not enough.” She would like to see more consultation with the farmers about what would help them the most: “They need financing. They need trading opportunities. And they need to be engaged. We need to listen to them more.” She says, “It’s still the dark side of the chocolate industry.”
Unfortunately, in far too many cacao farming families, the women do the bulk of the work but the men receive the pay—and spend it on things other than the family. Nyemba laments, “Women still don’t have a lot of say, even though we keep the families together. We keep the work together.” So she made the radical decision to pay female workers directly, to help break this cycle of gender inequality.
Nyemba opened her factory earlier this year in Mission, British Columbia, where she now produces Canada’s only single-source, traceable, direct-trade, sustainable chocolate products made from organic cacao beans. EMKAO Foods makes cocoa nibs, cocoa paste, cocoa butter, cocoa powder and dark vegan chocolate chips.
And she has high hopes for the future. Nyemba wants to expand EMKAO Foods into other provinces in Canada. She’d also like to work with more farmers: “Today it’s my village, but tomorrow I want it to be the entire Cameroon.”
How to buy ethical chocolate
The bittersweet reality is that much of the chocolate available on the North American market today is neither good for the planet nor profitable for the people who grew the cacao. But Nyemba believes that consumers are becoming more aware of the problems and trying harder to make ethical choices: “I definitely think the future is brighter.” She outlines what a consumer should consider before buying any bar of chocolate.
- Price: If a chocolate bar costs less than $5 in North America, the cacao farmer most likely was not paid a fair wage.
- Origin: The cacao should come from a single source.
- Organic certification: The cacao should be certified organic.
- Sugar: The lower the sugar content and the higher the cacao content, the better.
- Brand: Research the brand to learn how the company supports its cacao farmers. Don’t buy from any brand with a questionable history.