By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
What could be sweeter than chocolate? Chocolate that gives back to the communities in which it is grown.
“For us that’s huge,” Lee-Newman said. “We’re trying to create a healthy bar of chocolate that does good and we’re doing it in kind of the hardest way possible, but in a way we can feel good about, and so to have someone like The Today Show resonate with that idea, it reinforces that we’re on the right track.”
Bija was featured on the national morning television program as part of small business week during the first week in May.
The segment was produced in partnership with Whole Foods Market, which selected some of its small producers to be highlighted during the program. Bija was one of just two companies from around the country that was featured.
“It substantiates the work that we’re doing,” Newman said, “It says that these big organizations recognize that small companies still can make a big difference.”
After two years of 100-percent growth year-over-year, the couple is now looking at expanding their company, both in Whatcom County, and in the South American countries they source their cocoa from.
The idea for Bija was sparked when the couple was on their honeymoon, which they spent distributing vitamins in remote villages in India.
“At that time we recognize the power that we have to change the way things are done,” Lee-Newman said, “and in our minds it kind of ignited that responsibility to do so.”
Then they started learning more about the chocolate industry, and decided to try to do their part to change it.
Last year, Newman said, chocolate was a $95 billion industry. And yet, the farmers in countries near the equator who grow the chocolate only get around 6-8 percent of the money made from each bar sold.
“It kind of continues this cycle of poverty in developing countries,” Lee-Newman said. “Where there isn’t enough to even sustain the business sometimes, or to provide opportunities, education, beyond cocoa.”
So they started Bija, and aimed to do things a little bit differently.
They partner directly with farmers and women-owned processing cooperatives to source and process their cocoa, instead of going through a third-party broker, where they’d have no oversight on how the farmers are being treated.
They communicate with the farmers and co-ops to make sure they’re getting paid enough to not only sustain their businesses, but also create opportunities for their families and communities.
“It’s really hard for us to get our head around providing this delicious dessert that people enjoy, but knowing on the other end of it that people have been mistreated, it didn’t work for us,” Lee-Newman said. “So that’s why when we built Bija we made sure to build in that 25 percent premium above fair trade prices to make sure there was the money to allow for possibilities and potential for these communities outside of just existing.”
They also pay for the new cooperatives they’re interested in working with to become certified organic. Their goal is to fund certification for 24 cooperatives by 2025. So far they have seven, in the Dominican Republic and Peru, with an eighth in progress. Helping cooperatives achieve that certification is part of Bija’s social mission, but it’s also an important part of the business model.
Because Bija only asks of each farmer and processor what they can comfortably produce — it doesn’t lock them in with exclusive contracts or demand they over-extend themselves to meet a higher yield — it’s important that they diversify their partnerships to ensure they can get enough cocoa, just in case one farmer has a bad growing year or has a personal emergency.
“If we can kind of build in a buffer, we can still continue to provide a product consistently, that’s good, and then it leaves room for everyone to be human,” Lee-Newman said.
The company also continues to grow, as more and more people are getting onboard with Bija’s mission.
In the next couple of the months, Bija plans to start partnering with other chocolate companies domestically to provide them with cocoa.
“A lot of chocolate makers are reaching out and asking if they can buy beans from us because they know the way we’re sourcing, and they want to be able to tell that story as well,” Lee-Newman said.
As they expand into this new venture, Lee-Newman and Newman are also planning on expanding their footprint in Whatcom County.
“It’s still interesting that people don’t know we’re from Bellingham,” Newman said. He said he often hears comments from people who love the product and recognize the brand, but are surprised to learn it’s a local company. Soon, however, they plan on renting office space and hiring their first employees.
They think they’ll need between two and four employees in the next year. Currently, Bija chocolate imports cocoa nibs — the cocoa beans refined into a ready-to-use form — and processes them into chocolate bars in a facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. They distribute throughout the West Coast. This new opportunity of selling beans to third parties would create a whole new stream of customers for their ethically-sourced cocoa.
“The one thing that we have recognized is that really, if we’re a social enterprise business that wants to make an impact it’s volume,” Newman said. “So the more chocolate bars we sell, the more work we can do and what that means is the more beans we can buy, the more groups we can help.”
Newman and Lee-Newman are part of a wave of businesses that, instead of working toward a profit and supporting charity on the side, are building giving back into the core mission and business model of their company. And customers are hopping on board.
“Our belief is that if we show people and tell people what’s going on and about why purchasing Bija makes a difference, then they will get behind that,” Lee-Newman said. “If they know better then they’ll do better.”