The Cornerstone of Cacao
Christina Lukeman, Senior Business Development Manager at MCE, sat down (virtually) with Emily to hear about how her love of chocolate and activism led to her journey as an entrepreneur over the past decade, and how MCE’s loans have been catalytic in the growth of her work with smallholder cacao farmers across Latin America.
Christina: Let’s start out with Uncommon Cacao’s founding story.
Emily: Uncommon Cacao was founded 10 years ago in response to two different problems. First, the new and growing market of craft, bean-to-bar chocolate in the US was in need of high quality, organic certified cacao — ideally produced by smallholder farmers, but the supply chain wasn’t developed enough to provide high quality cacao at scale. Second, the symptoms of a broken system within the chocolate industry (i.e., child labor, slavery, poverty) were beginning to come into the global spotlight. I was an activist at the time, working in socially responsible investing in Boston and had also been a chocolate lover my whole life (editor’s fun fact: Emily wrote a cookbook called “Desserts Around the World” when she was 10 years old as a school project and did her 7th grade science project on cupcakes). As an activist, I was really passionate about trade, globalization and social justice issues, but didn’t connect those dots to chocolate until I started learning about the cacao supply chain. And at the time, the existing certification models were not really addressing the problem in its entirety -they were providing a good starting point and baseline, but they had a long way to go.
As I dug deeper in learning, I made the decision to quit my job and move to Belize. In those first months, I spent a good amount of time hitchhiking and riding buses to visit all these smallholder cacao-producing villages in Southern Belize, in order to hear the smallholder farmers’ stories and vision and concerns with the industry. I learned how difficult it was for farmers to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, transport and sell cacao themselves, and how low the financial gain was for them in that model, so our idea began to introduce centralized fermentation to produce a higher quality cacao, so farmers could earn more.
Our first export in 2011 was six metric tons (not even a full container), but we started to grow really fast from there, particularly as more farmers started to learn about our model. Working with us meant the farmers didn’t have to do this whole, long process themselves, but they could still make the same or higher wages. We grew really quickly from working with 52 families to over 300 in Belize, and we were the largest exporter of cacao by 2013. At this point, the boom of the bean to bar movement was growing rapidly and we had all these companies knocking at our door. With the high demand, we expanded to Guatemala in 2014, where we implemented an innovation to our model in using community associations to harvest and process the cacao.
We have now expanded our sourcing operations to work with over 5400 farmers across 10 countries, and we are selling cacao to over 250 chocolate makers around the world.
Christina: How did you first learn about MCE?
Emily: At SOCAP, RSF Social Finance introduced us to Pierre and the team at MCE, and the synergies were immediately clear. We had done a round of financing led by the Eleos Foundation (who we were introduced to through Agora Partnerships) in the form of a demand dividend in 2013, and then did a Series A round in 2016, but MCE was our first debt investor.
Christina: What was something that excited you about partnering with MCE?
Emily: We had been in conversations with a number of other lenders, but we were too small for many of them and we couldn’t start serious conversations until we were looking for $250k+. We knew we would get there (we were growing at 25–30% per year at the time), but since it was our first experience working with this type of working capital/debt, we wanted to not bite off more than we could chew.
Working with MCE to design that right entry-level financing was incredible and super unique — no other investors had been willing to work with us like that.
We were really able to build trust and a strong relationship with MCE, and since that first year of financing a few years back, we’ve been able to grow — this year we are looking at $300k in financing.
Christina: The magic of MCE’s model allows us to come in with smaller loans with the expectation of growing with our SGBs. Most investors shy away from those loans due to higher transaction costs and perceived risk, but because of the guarantee mechanism and the fact that we are incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit, we are able to take thoughtful risk and absorb grant capital and thus subsidize the high cost of lending at smaller tickets.
And you guys meet the entrepreneurs where they are at. A lot of times, entrepreneurs feel that they have to fit a square peg into a round hole to please investors, but being able to work with MCE is so unique because it has been so flexible, entrepreneur-friendly and it really works — it helped us get the right amount of financing at the right time so we can grow to gain attraction from investors that deploy at larger ticket sizes.
Christina: Thinking back to 2010, if you could talk to Emily from 10 years ago, what would you tell her?
Emily: My biggest lessons learned have been around management, particularly in leading a multi-country company. I’m continually growing into being the most effective leader I can be and to support my team in the ways that they need. I probably would have told myself to read more books on the subject and to more intentionally learn about doing management well.
Christina: Anything else you’d like to add?
Emily: I’m really grateful for our partnership with MCE. It has been extremely catalytic for us in how we’ve been able to grow across our supply chain. We are so glad to be working with such an impact-first investor to expand the smallholder communities we work with and bring awesome-tasting chocolate to the world — it is most definitely a really sweet partnership.