Coldbush Organics makes mark in cocoa industry
Today, we begin a series dubbed ‘Investing in Local Start-ups – the Second $150m’, introducing six new founders and sharing a part of their entrepreneurial journey, facilitated by FirstAngelsJA, Jamaica’s first angel investor network.
Averell French and Hellen Akiror were born and raised half a world away from each other – he in Jamaica, and she in Uganda – but they grew up with one thing in common: cocoa.
French’s family has farmed in the Mount Pleasant area of the Blue Mountains for more than 100 years, growing primarily coffee and cocoa. Akiror grew up around cocoa as well, coming from a family that makes chocolates.
It was this shared passion for cocoa that led them to each other years later in London, where French was an architect, and Akiror was an MBA student at London Business School, completing a dissertation about fair trade practices, their impact on niche products like Blue Mountain coffee and cocoa, and how best to position these premium products on the international market. French connected Akiror to his father for research purposes and the rest, as they say, is history.
“My father was an agronomist and he was passionate about coffee and cocoa, so we had strains of cocoa that he had developed over many years and Hellen just loved it,” said French. His father had migrated to England in the 1960s, leaving the family farms behind. As an adult, French would travel to Jamaica every few months to check on the lands, with the aim of returning permanently to renovate the farms and “do something” with the coffee and cocoa.
That permanent move came in 2009, and he and Akiror set about transforming their shared passion into a business. They spent some time building the capacity of the farms to produce enough cacao beans for manufacturing purposes and made some investments in production systems. Coldbush Organics Limited was launched in 2013, with its flagship product being the Mount Pleasant Farms Chocolatiers brand of chocolates. The range includes 70 per cent dark chocolate bars– which come in several flavours, milk chocolate bars, and truffles. They also produce cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
A family of chocolatiers
“Hellen comes from a family of chocolatiers, so she wanted to explore more of the Jamaican flavour band since we have one of the best cocoa beans in the world; and because we farm in the Blue Mountains, there is a difference. It has a distinctive taste – creamier, less acidic,” said French.
He initially wanted to focus on coffee, but Akiror convinced him to go with chocolates instead. Highgate, the once -popular local brand, was no longer in business, so there was a clear opportunity there. “It wasn’t hard to explore the Jamaican cacao bean flavour. It is the best balanced; not overwhelming processed, bland or bitter. People always ask us how our dark chocolate is not bitter. We have a unique blend. It takes a lot of research and perfecting, trying to find the balance,” she said. “When we started, most people said dark chocolate wouldn’t fly in Jamaica, but the Jamaican market loves it. Many people thought we were only doing it to export, but we thought, if it can fly everywhere else, it can fly here, too. I didn’t see it in the market. How can you judge something when you’ve not offered it to the market?”
Today, Mount Pleasant chocolates are becoming increasingly popular, appearing on shelves in more and more supermarkets, pharmacies, and hotel and airport gift shops. French and Akiror have always sought to ensure that cost is not a reason Jamaicans won’t purchase their products over an imported brand. Akiror acknowledged that pricing was a challenge early on, since the chocolates are essentially speciality items and are not mass produced, so they don’t have the advantage of economy of scale. “There isn’t a big difference between our pricing and the regular chocolate bars,” she said. “Our main goal from the beginning was to give the customers a quality and genuinely world-class product that they could take anywhere and feel proud that it’s Jamaican.”
“Because we’re farm-based, that gives us a bit more flexibility in controlling the quality from post-harvest right through to the processing,” added French. Currently, some of the processing is done on location at the farm and some is done at a factory in Bull Bay, St Thomas.
A plan for financing the business
Like many entrepreneurs, the couple started out by financing the business out of their own pockets. They tasted some success right off the bat and were able to sustain operations by constantly plugging the earnings back into the business. However, due to their commitment to keeping their prices at an affordable level, they didn’t see a big profit margin.
This pushed them to begin to search for outside financing sources, starting with the “extremely challenging and exhausting” process of applying for loans. Realising that this wasn’t the best avenue for them to pursue, they halted the process and turned their attention to alternative options, such as grants.
The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship was very helpful when they started as they won the organisation’s Made for More pitch award. They worked with the centre again to fine tune their application for the Development Bank of Jamaica’s IGNITE grant in 2016, which awarded them J$2.5 million. They’ve also won a few more awards that helped with either financing the business or increasing its profile in the local business sphere.