Focus: Fast rising cocoa business Twenty Degrees Cacao
Seeking out some of the most richly diverse strains of cacao in the world is offering Leo Palmer a hugely rewarding challenge. Having spent several years working in Ecuador, he has gained a wealth of key insights into production processes that are serving him well with the creation of his latest venture. Neill Barston reports
With the support of Olam Cocoa, he is at the forefront of establishing a new business, Twenty Degrees, that aims to make its mark within a highly competitive global market. As the entrepreneur explains, the company’s goal is to source supplies from ten distinctive locations offering unique flavours (see our exclusive video interview with Leo Palmer here).
These include sites in Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, Indonesia’s Seram Island and Uganda, in a bid to further unlock lesser explored markets serving the global premium chocolate business. Consequently, the venture, which takes its name from the cacao belt ranging twenty degrees north and south of the equator, is led by a small team of specialists, but will call on the expertise of Olam in its sourcing for beans and associated cocoa ingredients.
As Palmer asserts, the company is ‘on a mission to change the way people think about premium cacao,’ noting key growth in the speciality side with organic cocoa, as well as increased demand from smaller customers looking for something unique.
“We knew there were some great opportunities with cocoa at origin out there. I had worked in Ecuador for four years, and a lot of colleagues around the world had told me they had some great beans, but that they didn’t really have an outlet for selling them,” enthuses Leo of the ambitious start-up that is already gaining considerable traction in attracting international interest. It’s a concept that is likely to prove a strong contender amid resilient global premium chocolate sales that have reflected a steep spike in consumer demand for artisan confectionery.
While London-based Palmer notes that being able to call upon some specialist knowledge and resources from a leading business such as Olam’s food ingredients division will make a decisive difference, he is keenly aware there will be much hard graft ahead in driving momentum for its operations.
But as he enthuses, having a clear goal for its objectives is something that will have an impact on its fortunes. “We know our customers want to connect directly with the farmers who produce their cacao.
That’s why we involve them at every step of the journey to help them find their perfect beans, whether its beans with a special story or a unique sensory profile, we want to work together to create positive and sustainable partnerships,” explains Palmer, who says there has been around 18 months of development work gone into the innovative enterprise. As for his own journey into the industry, he says it’s been a particularly enjoyable decade or so getting to grips with several key roles in the sector.
He explains his older brothers had offered some friendly advice that commodities offered some intriguing prospects, ‘and Olam very generously got back to my application,’ opening a rewarding career path that he continues to enjoy. “I was offered a fantastic opportunity to work in Ecuador, and being a Spanish speaker really helped, working in one of the lesser trodden cities a few hours west of the capital, Quito.
“The work was so engaging and challenging, working on the both the financial side, as well as with farmers on sustainability projects, I was just hooked by the industry,” he explains of his formative experiences within the sector. It was to lead on to a more senior role based in New York, managing the Latin American region for Olam, where the seeds of the new venture were initially sown.
While many might baulk at the prospect of launching amid a pandemic, he says the fact that most of their customers are a large array of relatively small-batch chocolate makers means that reaching out to them all online is proving an especially effective business model. “Everyone has an interest in provenance, traceability and sustainability, but we’re aiming this at those who are really drilling down to something unique, whether that’s micro batches from an indigenous group in Ecuador, or a specific genotype of a cacao in another country, that’s the level of product we are looking at here,” adds Palmer, who says he’s encouraged by early positive feedback.
As the cocoa specialist adds, Twenty Degrees has built sustainability into its founding principles. Through engaging with local farmers, its goal is to deliver full operating transparency as a core feature of its approach to the sector. “Sustainability in the speciality market is something you almost take it as read that this has to happen.
For us, we’re looking at transparency, the impact on the ground, and trying as much as we can to link the end buyer back to the community as well. “All of our beans have full transparency, of where they are bought, which farmers contributed, and what price is paid to them, that can be shared with buyers.”
As he adds, the company works directly with communities, from initiatives with farmers including on yield improvement, agricultural practices, through to fermentation and drying projects, as well as vital sourcing certification. On one of the key ongoing sector issues of child labour, he adds that while it remains a concerning matter on a wider level, he says it is less of a factor within the groups of smallholders it works with around the world, though he acknowledges further global reforms and action are required.
Clearly, establishing a new venture will have plenty of tests, not least of these will be in navigating the ongoing pandemic – resulting in a greater online sales focus that is making an impact. After attracting considerable interest in its activities, he’s filled with optimism for its future prospects amid an ever-evolving world market for premium confectionery.