This Easter Alumni Voices speaks all things chocolate to alumna Sophie Jewett, founder of York Cocoa House, about her career, York as the traditional home of chocolate and the importance of the de-commoditization of the cocoa industry.
University of York and early career
I came to York to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 1999. I thought I was going to go off and travel, but when I first came here I was actually in the process of being quite significantly unwell.
I took my second year off to be one of the presidents of the Students’ Union, organising student fundraising events and activities on campus. During that time I had a number of holes in my stomach which meant I couldn’t eat food, but I made an amazing chocolate cake and hot chocolate and I started doing volunteering work and when things got too much, I would make chocolate biscuits for my volunteers. I learned that when you shared chocolate with people they would be really helpful. A seed was planted…
I remember having a philosophy assignment due but after an evening out with friends, I wrote a first class essay, likening the ontological argument of God to the existence of the most perfect chocolate cake. Chocolate became a really pervasive theme across my whole life. I really liked how people and communities were brought together over food and at the time, the whole city smelt of chocolate.
But then we started to see the chocolate industry leave the city. I started speaking to porters and cleaners around the campus who had many stories about having worked in the chocolate industry. I went to a lecture at the university on the science of chocolate by Professor Stephen Beckett, a chocolate scientist, who went on to be a mentor and advisor of mine – I found it so fascinating.
I had wanted to work in international development but due to my illness and medication I couldn’t go abroad. I felt stuck in York because I had to have weekly trips to the hospital at that point. I figured York needed to be the place that I built my career and stayed so I wanted to become part of the community.
I eventually graduated in 2004, after taking several years off – I was just very proud to get that certificate at the end. I went to the careers department and I said, ‘I want to start my own business’, I think there was one folder on starting your own business. Now the university is very fortunate to have Enterprise Works to support students interested in starting their own businesses as well as an entrepreneurial culture really starting to develop. Enterprise Works is a tremendous project, I’m so excited that the university is using its role to connect great ideas with the energy and passion of students and entrepreneurs in the city and beyond as well as recognising the power and impact it can have in our own community.
I was very lucky to find lots of people that supported my journey. When I graduated the jobs that were starting to become available were around Corporate Social Responsibility – it was a buzzword at the time. I’d already worked as a graduate trainee for Marks and Spencers, I’d looked at Cadburys, Unilever and lots of similar organisations. The way that the corporate world was geared was so dismissive of the Quakers and what they had done – and certainly why this whole university was built in the first instance. I felt like I couldn’t see a world that correlated with everything that I stood for, everything that I’d learnt, everything I knew and what this place had taught me. That was the moment when I knew I had to take my own path.
Setting up York Cocoa Works
In 2008 I decided to focus my energy on something I really loved and started looking at what was happening in the world of chocolate. It wasn’t good. When I learnt everything that was going on in the coffee industry and how the world of beer had gone, I was intrigued as to why this world of chocolate was so corrupt and hadn’t evolved in the same way. We’re here in this chocolate city; we could do something about that.
I started asking people, ‘Why don’t we do anything with chocolate?’ People would tell me, ‘That’s Kraft’s job or Nestle’s job’. But seeing how a globalised approach to business had had such a negative impact in the city, I said, ‘No, it’s not – that’s our job. Why don’t we do it?’ And people said, ‘Well, okay, go do it.’
I worked at the York Food and Drink Festival and I created a day trading. I put all these ideas together and the Food and Drink Festival came back to me and said, ‘Sophie, there’s nobody to do this. Why don’t you do it?’ My first day of trading was in the Guildhall and I did a market stall, teaching and a demonstration – all at the same time. It was exhausting, but it was a success.
Three months later it felt like the universe was telling me to follow this course, so I gave up my job and went all in. At that point I sat down and made a list that asked, ‘What does York need if we’re going to do this properly?’ I realised York could be forward thinking if we could open the production process. We could show how it could be done as there are so many experts in the city, we could bring them together, we could be transparent, we could be inspired by what the Quakers did and look to the future.
So I opened a chocolate shop that had a cafe and won an award. I worked with Deborah Meaden for a year. By that point, we’d started being consultants for one of the world’s biggest cocoa firms, who said, ‘You know about chocolate. Can you make this for us?’ I said yes but didn’t have a clue how to do it – that contract brought me my first chocolate machine.
There’s this idea that if you throw your hat over the wall then you’ve got to follow through and do it, so during a presentation I told everybody that I was going to build a chocolate factory. People started to come out of the woodwork who wanted to help build that chocolate factory. Mr Rowntree is one of our investors, we’ve worked with people from big chocolate factories and cocoa growing communities.
The community across York and in particular from the university have been tremendous, it’s wonderful to welcome alumni, and some of my former lecturers, to employ current students and to connect with ongoing projects like the Festival of Ideas, and funding initiatives, like PAPI, have helped fund our equipment and innovation projects. We do work with the University who take our chocolates abroad to showcase a little bit of York when traveling the world. I cherish my time at the University of York and find it inspiring to see so many people who strive to have a positive impact in the face of the challenges and unfairness in the world. I always believed that we all have the power to make a positive impact in small ways; by what we buy, who we work with and who we encourage and support.
The Cocoa Industry
My journey into the world of cocoa has been fascinating, eye-opening, frustrating and at times terrifying. The cocoa trading model is systemically archaic and while I appreciate an ideal model may be unattainable, I didn’t realise the internal conflicts I would encounter on this journey. I aspired to build an open and transparent trading model, however I’ve increasingly come to feel that by fully taking this stance I can become complicit in standing by and tacitly supporting systems and laws fundamentally at odds with my own.
At the moment we are developing a framework about cocoa quality. I work with a community in Cameroon who work with solar power because Cameroon is one of the wettest communities in the world where they have the most rainfall and that causes the cocoa to go mouldy or smokey, due to the drying process. The commodity trading model tries to hold that against them and they devalue that cocoa, whereas their cocoa has some really distinctive features of high quality.
What we’re trying to do is actually share that knowledge with communities around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to go and work in Colombia on several trade missions and this year I’m looking forward to being able to teach more chocolate making. This last year we’ve taught more than 100,000 visitors how to work with and create their own chocolate. It’s about trying to create an open process because I like chocolate and if you like what you do, then you don’t want to hide it.
My main objective, back in 2008, was to de-commoditize cocoa. It’s about creating a cocoa quality marketplace, which allows cocoa to be traded based on the value that it creates and the quality around it. I believe if we can create a structured and accessible market place we open up the value chain to growing communities who can benefit from improvements in cultivation and quality and share in the value added rather than the commodity model of one price for all, no matter how good it is.
We must abide by standards and qualities to operate in the U.K. whilst all too often turning a blind eye to the sourcing impacts elsewhere. So while we must thoughtfully consider how we engage with international trade responsibly we must also face the dilemmas we encounter.
We’ve been proud to source cocoa from Uganda, a fine quality cocoa with distinctive flavours, but the naming of David Kato College last month and the impending change in law announced almost simultaneously making homosexuality an offense incurring Capital punishment has raised some significant questions which as a company we must face.
I believe human rights and personal freedom are unalienable, we all have a right to our own beliefs. But when those beliefs endanger life, when they condemn the very freedom everyone should be entitled to, I find myself in a moment when we are in danger of being complicit in the persecution of others.
I did not meet David, but what happened to him is not ok. And while I can not tell others what they should or shouldn’t do, through trade we can support the beliefs and impacts that we value. So in light of the events that have occurred and upon reflection, we’ve decided to remove Ugandan cocoa and chocolate from our product range and seek to find projects that can enable conscientious empowerment of the partners we work with.
We continue to face challenges sourcing cocoa, we must trust the trading partners we work with and continue to explore the sector with an open mind. For me it’s important we learn from the impacts of colonial approaches to international trade and aid and find long-term, collaborative and effective solutions while using our trade as constructively and conscientiously as we can.
At York Coco Works we are an open factory, the whole process is visual and transparent, we still have lots of progress to make but we look forward to welcoming you and sharing our chocolate.