Nearly 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, yet chocolate, one of the chief products of cocoa, is produced almost entirely off the continent. Ghanaian sisters Kimberly and Priscilla Addison were living in Switzerland when one of them toured a chocolate factory and learned the beans were sourced from their home-country. A few years later they launched 57 Chocolate, named for Ghana’s year of independence. We sat down with them to learn more about how they’re changing chocolate and why they still sort their beans by hand.
Stranger’s Guide: How did you get started in the chocolate business?
Kimberly Addison: The idea first came to us in 2014. We’d been living in Switzerland. Priscilla had been working in food security, I was working with women and education, and we’d both got to the point where we were quite restless. Our father was close to retirement and intending to move back to Ghana, so we started thinking about moving back to Ghana too and starting a business. Our original idea was crepe making — French pancakes — but one day a group of friends invited me to tour a Swiss chocolate factory called Cailler, one of largest chocolate makers in Switzerland. At the beginning of the tour they showed us where they sourced the beans — Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. Switzerland is known for its chocolate but the realization that the main ingredient isn’t even grown there, but in West Africa, was quite shocking. [For the past 150 years, Africa has produced nearly 70% of the world’s finest cacao beans, but less than 1% of the world’s chocolate.] So I went home that day and spoke to Priscilla about it.
Priscilla Addison: I got my Master’s at NYU, and as part of that we researched agricultural value chains. One of the main value chains was cocoa.
Kimberly: We thought it would be great to use Ghana’s cocoa and transform it into chocolate. There was only one main chocolate maker in the country at the time; people in Ghana would purchase chocolate made in Switzerland or the United States or Europe. So we said let’s try to make a chocolate that was just as good — or higher quality — than Switzerland or Europe; add value to the cocoa bean locally. We ended up moving to Ghana in 2014 but didn’t make our first batch until 2016, and in that time we read books, went on training courses in the UK, and spoke to people in the industry.
SG: Tell us about that first foray into chocolate making.
Priscilla: Initially it began with me and Kim working in the kitchen. One of our first orders was for a wedding — we had to make over 300 favor boxes. The chocolates each had an Adrinka symbol on it [ancient Ghanaian symbols that represent traditional wisdom]; visual symbols that each has a meaning.
Kimberly: It was nerve-wracking at first but our first batch was actually pretty good — we’d done so much training and reading and got so much experience through classes and apprenticeships with other chocolate makers.
SG: 57 Chocolate is named after Ghana’s independence in 1957. How important is it to you that you are a Ghanaian chocolate brand?
Priscilla: Our mission is to inspire the youth to make and create products here in Ghana from natural resources. At the time of Ghanaian independence in 1957 the country was making and creating a lot of its own products. We wanted to bring that mentality back, inspire young people and make them see it is possible to make premium goods of amazing value instead of selling our natural resources. For us, part of that meant creating products that reflected African art and culture — and we felt the Adrinkra symbols ensured that. In our collection of chocolate we include a small biography of each symbol and its meaning and our customers love that.
SG: What makes Ghanaian cocoa beans so good?
Kimberly: Ghana’s cocoa is of a very high quality — it’s one of the country’s main cash crops and so it’s very regulated, a lot of control goes into the process. The regulator is called the cocoa board, and it ensures that farmers are doing the right thing, beans are being properly dried, fermentation is happening properly as well. That’s one of the main reasons it’s such high quality. Equally, the soil and climate — Ghana is a very fertile country; almost anything grows here.
SG: I read that you used to hand-sort your sun-dried cocoa beans before roasting them?
Kimberly: We still hand sort, bean by bean. A lot of people don’t realize a lot of bigger, mass producers of chocolate sort of throw in the good, bad and ugly together. That’s what goes into typical candy bars. One of the things that is important for us is going through the beans to make sure none are moldy; to ensure the beans we’re using are the best.
SG: Are your chocolates just for consumption in Ghana or do you export?
Priscilla: Our idea from the beginning was to start locally but think globally. So we ship worldwide: to Russia, Korea, the U.S., Australia, the UK. In Ghana we sell through mostly boutique stores like Thrive Wholefoods. Before the pandemic we used to host a lot of chocolate tastings, and people were often flabbergasted that this high quality chocolate was made in Ghana. We want to change perceptions of how people view chocolate made in Ghana.
Kimberly: The beautiful thing is, most retailers found out about us and came to us. I think there came a point in time where people were looking for artisanal, hand-made food and drink, especially in the States — the craft beer movement, for example — and I feel like the same thing happened with chocolate.
Priscilla: Social media has been an extremely powerful tool. We’re on Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Linked-in. We use beautiful videos and visuals to attract clients. People are intrigued about our story. It’s not every day you find two sisters in business together. Talking to people is extremely powerful. Every time we meet people we tell them what we do.
SG: How did you grow your business?
Kimberly: It’s been a gradual process — not too fast or too slow. There were times in the beginning when Priscilla and I would pull all-nighters to meet certain orders. I remember our first Valentine’s Day.
Priscilla: That was the worst.
Kimberly: We didn’t sleep at all. We worked from morning until the next morning, even after the day had passed when people should have ideally placed all their orders, husbands and boyfriends were calling at the last minute, pleading for anything that was left over. Then it sort of moved to the time when we had our first employee, and gradually, as we began to grow, we brought on more people. We moved from a one-room operation to about six rooms over the course of five years. And as we grow we gradually make adjustments to our production center.
SG: Has the pandemic has affected business?
Kimberly: When the pandemic hit, we were watching closely, day by day, and in March we made the decision to close for two weeks and see how things go. The following day the president announced Ghana’s lockdown quite suddenly, so we made a good call. Lockdown here was lifted in April but during that time we were still paying all of our workers and while all our employees were home, luckily we still had inventory in stock. During lockdown we still had a few orders coming in from the States and I’d go in to work and handle those orders. Finally we brought back one employee in May, and brought everyone back in September. We currently have eight employees. Everyone got tested, and being in food production one thing Priscilla and I implemented from the beginning was good hygiene: we were already wearing face masks and gloves and washing our hands a lot before the pandemic. A lot of stockists and retailers, especially in Ghana were shut down, so we didn’t have that many local orders. One silver lining, though, was that it gave us the opportunity to experiment. We were able to launch a new flavor — Moringa Chocolate, which comes from a superfood tree. And we came up with a line of baking chocolate. More and more people were baking at home during the pandemic so this was immediately very successful. We also worked on our ecommerce site which we’re planning to launch in the Spring so we can make our chocolate more accessible to people worldwide and more convenient for customers.