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Meet Benjamin Figarede - Cocoa Sourcer & Project Manager at Valrhona USA

Alongside the company who values excellence, innovation and sustainability this cocoa farmers’ ambassador creates bonds between smallholder cocoa farmers and the craft chocolate makers of the world.

Photo: courtesy Benjamin Figarede

Benjamin Figarede has sourced cocoa for fifteen years, eight of which have been spent looking for premium cocoa alongside the renowned French premium chocolate maker, Valrhona. He has scoured the world around the tropical belt looking for the finest cocoas to reveal their singularity to gastronomy professionals. This is a job that does not leave one indifferent because it is so passionate and intriguing.

Benjamin has built his strong connection with the origins of cocoa over the years to ultimately understand its importance. Without this privileged relationship with the producers, making exceptional chocolate would be impossible. Working at Valrhona means working with 18,000 producers to be finally able to put a first name on each of them. It is through these strong, friendly, and family-like relationships that makes the chocolate maker a unique player in the food industry.

Through his work, along with the other three cocoa sourcers of the company, Benjamin helps Valrhona become an innovative company that stands out for its expertise and its commitment, a company that bridges the gap between the planters and the customers.

In July 2020, Valrhona is joining the community of sustainable companies most committed to caring for the planet, people and their wellbeing, becoming the first chocolate maker to earn a B Corporation© certification. This certification is not only the concretization of all the responsible practices that the company has been implementing for 30 years, but also a means for Valrhona to clearly show its willingness to commit itself to a better tomorrow.

Discover the universe of one of the world’s most engaged and impactful companies for which sustainable gastronomy has been a philosophy and a daily commitment for a long time. Meet Benjamin Figarede, a sourcing expert with a broad and sound vision for the cocoa industry, who takes us to the heart of the plantations, always as close as possible to the soil, the pods, and the people who harvest them.

Welcome Benjamin to Chefs for Impact!

By Benjamin Figarede as told to Chefs for Impact

What made you decide to become a cocoa sourcer?

« I graduated in Agronomy specialization tropical production. I grew up in the French islands of Guadeloupe, Reunion Island, and Mayotte, where I developed an interest in north-south relations at a very young age. Quickly, I was in search of a more virtuous model that would balance these relationships. Having come close to sourcing coffee, it was cocoa that finally got me, with no regrets!”

What does it mean to be a cocoa sourcer at Valrhona?

“I started my career purchasing cocoa for the bulk Industry in West Africa in Ivory Coast and Ghana for six years before joining Valrhona’s sourcing department. This is when I discovered that certain chocolate makers were highly valuing the relationship with the origins thus working the cocoa beans differently from the rest of the industry. I traveled to Latin America where I met with local communities, reinforcing my choice to become their ambassador.

My job is to accompany the planters who produce interesting cocoa. We work hand in hand to make their product as interesting as possible for us, ensuring that the aromatic profile is exquisite, while being able to repeat it over time with the same consistency. We study the process together and I have them taste the final product (aka chocolate) so that they know how to identify the aromas. Surprising as it may seem, these communities often don't have access to chocolate. We help educate their palates and it’s very powerful to see their face in that moment. Putting words to impressions is how we can build the future together: by developing their sensory universe.”

Valrhona has always been very committed to sustainability. Recently, a new milestone has been reached with the achievement of Bcorp certification. Can you tell us more about it?

“The first time I heard about Bcorp as the revolution in progress, I first thought it was just one more certification. I soon realized there was something deeper. It wasn't only about certifying that the ingredient was free of pesticides, child labour, or deforestation, but there was a much more inclusive approach behind it. Bcorp includes a notion of respect for the ingredient, the people who grow it, the environment, and the entire ecosystem.

You don't become Bcorp overnight, it's a long-term process. At Valrhona, people have been working on this for many years. For 30 years Valrhona has been interested in small producers and has understood their challenges. These strong values are instilled in the DNA of the company through inclusive, respectful, and ultimately healthier business development processes. This certification is very timely for us as it demonstrates our commitment in a time of crisis as well as the environmental emergency where the notion of clean label, healthy ingredients processed cleanly, takes on an even stronger meaning. Bcorp is quite simply the explanation of everything we know how to do well and that we could not explain in a word until now. This certification unifies our ecosystem and rewards the practices that have been in place for 30 years.”

Growing meaningful relationships with cocoa planters has always been at the heart of Valrhona's philosophy. What is the impact of these beliefs?

“In cocoa there is a notion of fair price, and to pay fairly you need to know the people you are working with. To do so, you need to meet them, be aware of their human rights, understand their standard of living, and make sure all of their needs are met. Responsible cocoa sourcing costs more than what you can find on the market, but it brings the certainty of knowing where it comes from, how the people who grow the cocoa live, thus allowing you to act for change. These producers have different standards of living, but you can create projects directed for them. The relationship I have with planters goes beyond just work; it's a real relationship of trust. We provide them with a voice; we represent them and help them interact with customers. For example, we bring farmers to the US to meet our customers in the same way that we send clients to plantations. Our goal is to make these two parts of the world understand each other better. This bond we create between producers and Chefs makes Valrhona a very unique player in the industry.”

What are the best practices in cocoa sourcing?

It is mostly about partnership. I work directly with producers, who have been selected beforehand because they’ve met different criteria. In all the countries we work with, we run human rights diagnostics. Together with NGOs and consultants, we have set up a system that enables us to analyze all the human rights risks and to provide answers to any risks that we might have identified. We attach great importance to the origin and particularly the aromatic bouquet it offers. We launch a new origin only if it offers a differentiating taste.

Then, of course, there is the whole history of the planters and their community. The unique relationship is the result of long-term work. For example, the partnership with our producers in Peru has grown stronger over the years. The cocoa price at which we began buying beans in 2011 has never been lowered; in fact, it has always increased. Over time, we have helped improve the living conditions and public health in the cocoa-producing community by supporting several projects: constructing kindergartens, building sanitary facilities, collecting water, planting cocoa trees, and creating infrastructures in the fermentation centers. Our vision is to build for the future. Being a cocoa producer means taking risks; it means planting a tree and harvesting the first pods three to five years later for a cruising speed that will only be reached after eight years. These long-term partnerships are important to us because we have people in front of us who make decisions for the future.

It’s also about communicating good practices and exchanging information between one plantation in Jamaica and another in Belize, for example. It's unique and it's a real added value; there is nothing equivalent in the world and there are no sources to learn about the best cocoa practices. By doing this, we are making this knowledge available to producers. »

What's the future of cocoa sourcing?

« Cocoa is a product whose value chain has, for a long time, been poorly explained. There has been a race for high percentages but rarely any talk about origins and aromatic profiles. Today, more and more people are interested in chocolate. They have developed a palate, a know-how, and that's a good thing. But there is not yet a unifying discourse on chocolate tasting, as it already exists for coffee or tea. Some industry players, including Valrhona, are working on the development of an international standard that would value the expertise and the origins. Clean labels, certifications, and the promotion of the origin will make even more sense in a post-crisis world. I think that locality, direct relations, and personification will be the standard of tomorrow. »

In order to be even more sustainable, shouldn’t chocolate production take place directly in the producing countries?

“Transporting cocoa means transporting shells, moisture, and bags that ultimately have little interest in chocolate making. If we are able to make the first transformations in the producing countries, that would mean 15 to 20% less to transport. It will be about promoting know-how in producing countries. We are willingly questioning ourselves whether we should be as close as possible to both the producing countries and our markets."

A final word?

"What drives me is not the taste of chocolate as such. It is the relationship with the people and learning about their culture. What I have found to like at Valrhona is the openness, flexibility, and the ecosystem. Navigating through this difficult time, I am proud of us and our achievements the past few months which demonstrated our ability to bounce back. On top of that, Bcorp gives me the opportunity to make people easily understand this pride.”

Photo: courtesy Benjamin Figarede



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