Q&A With Beyond Good—Chocolate That Halts Deforestation, Improves Farmers' Lives

Based in Madagascar, this company prioritizes organic agroforestry and fair pay.

sorting cocoa beans
A worker in Madagascar opens cocoa pods to empty out the beans.

Olivier Polet, Corbis/Getty Images

Beyond Good is a company that stands out in the chocolate industry. It works with cocoa farmers in Madagascar—and, more recently, Uganda—to make delicious chocolate that pays those farmers fairly, cuts out all the middlemen, and seeks out sustainable agroforestry and business solutions. It is striving to combat climate change and deforestation and boost biodiversity, as well as create a resilient cocoa industry that's focused on doing things right.

Conventional cocoa production leaves a lot to be desired. The average farmer makes between 50 and 70 cents a day. There can be up to five middlemen between farmer and factory, and it takes 120 days to get cocoa from tree to finished chocolate. Beyond Good takes a different approach, proving that things can be better. The cocoa farmers it works with earn $3.84 per day, and it takes just one day for cocoa to reach the chocolate factory in Madagascar.

Some of the things we do to help people and planet can feel like a sacrifice. But every now and then, you come across something as simple as eating a certain brand of chocolate that can aid in halting deforestation, building biodiverse ecosystems, and improving human lives. When Treehugger heard about the great work that Beyond Good is doing, it reached out to learn more. Here is the Q&A with a company spokesperson.

Treehugger: Would you give us some details about the impacts of climate change and deforestation in Madagascar?

Beyond Good: Deforestation is the more immediate threat to Madagascar. "Threat" is the wrong word because the country is being actively deforested as you read this—and has been for the past 1,000 years. It’s down to about 10% of its original forest cover. This is bad for any country, but it’s especially bad for Madagascar because 90% of the flora and fauna is endemic. When a species goes extinct here, it goes extinct from the world.  

TH: Agroforestry is an important strategy for the future of farming. Which trees and other plants are beneficial on your cocoa farms?

BG: Cocoa is a shade crop. It requires a canopy of shade above it to thrive.  A typical parcel of cocoa forest in our supply chain will have 75% cocoa trees and 25% shade trees.

Certain trees—Albizzia Lebbeck and Glyricidia—provide shade for the cocoa trees and add nitrogen to the soil, which is essential for plant growth.  Other trees—jackfruit, mango, citrus—provide shade for the cocoa, and fruit for the farmer. 

Even banana trees and young cocoa trees have this sort of beautiful, symbiotic relationship. Cocoa trees require full shade in their first five years of life. Banana trees are planted next to cocoa trees to provide that shade for the cocoa (and bananas for the farmer). The life span of a banana tree is five to six years, at which point it dies off just as the cocoa tree is strong enough to survive without the banana tree. I can’t walk past a banana tree in Madagascar without thinking of Shel Silverstein’s book, "The Giving Tree."

TH: How, specifically, has increasing plant variety supported biodiversity?

BG: Madagascar has 107 species of lemurs, 103 of which are threatened with extinction (due to deforestation). Five of those species live in our cocoa forests—the northern giant mouse lemur (vulnerable); the Sambirano mouse lemur (endangered); the Sambirano fork-marked lemur (endangered); the Dwarf lemur (endangered); and Gray’s Sportive Lemur (endangered). Other animals also live in the cocoa forests, including the Madagascar Flying Fox (vulnerable) and the Madagascar Crested Ibis (near threatened), along with 18 other species of bird and 13 species of reptile.

TH: How have you chosen farmers to work with? And why Madagascar?

BG: I lived and worked there as a Peace Corps volunteer after college. You could say it chose me more than I chose it. There isn’t a more interesting or more challenging place in the world. I would have gone to Bangladesh, but it was just blind luck that the Peace Corps sent me to Madagascar.

In a certain sense, the farmers also choose us. There’s probably a bit of gravitational pull at play.  We have a specific farmer program, and it took five years to crack that code. The program works as well as anything I’ve seen in the cocoa sector. The right farmers are drawn to it.

TH: What changes have been made in farming operations that began working with Beyond Good? What has BG done to invest in organic practices and education?

BG: Madagascar is unique because the cocoa is designated as "fine flavor." There are a bunch of different words for it, but whatever you call it, the cocoa has an abundance of flavor and produces a better bar of chocolate. To achieve that flavor, cocoa needs to be fermented and dried properly, which we'e trained farmers to do. There are probably ten good reasons why smallholders in Madagascar had never been taught to ferment and dry properly before, but it does three very important things for farmers: (1) They acquire technical skills; (2) they make more money; and (3) they become motivated, which is a byproduct of points one and two.

Yes, all of the farms we work with are certified organic. It’s a tremendous amount of work and, honestly, we’ve questioned the necessity of it over the years because there isn’t an herbicide or pesticide within 500 miles. But the organic work we do has led to much bigger things than organic certification itself.

TH: Have farmers been reluctant to change or have they embraced efforts from the outset?

BG: It took five years to get our work with farmers to a good place. The main obstacle was trust. In a place like rural Madagascar, it takes five years to develop trust. In year one, farmers thought we were crazy and ignored us. In year two, farmers thought we were crazy, and started to hear us out. In year three, farmers started to make more money. In year four, other farmers noticed that those in our program made more money. In year five, they started coming to us. 

TH: Could you share some stories of farmers in Madagascar and how they have benefited, both socially and environmentally?

BG: People living in extreme poverty, which is 77% of people in Madagascar, don’t think long-term—and it’s not fair to ask them to. When your only thought in life is, "How am I going to buy rice this week to feed my family?", you don’t care about conservation or education. You can’t even conceptualize those things. You need to deal with poverty before people can care about the environment. Once our farmers were financially secure, they started to think longer-term. And once that happened, they instinctively started to do things like plant cocoa trees (that don’t produce income or cocoa for three years). 

Aspiration also requires future-based thinking, and aspiration is at a deficit in rural Madagascar. I once asked a farmer what he wanted their cooperative to look like in five years.  He said, "We want to grow the cooperative to be the tallest peak in the valley. Then other cocoa farmers will see what we are doing [and] know it’s possible to make good money farming cocoa." I’ve been working here for 20 years. That was the first time I’d encountered that level of aspirational thinking in the countryside. 

Farmers in our supply chain earn significantly more than what a cocoa farmer in West Africa makes; and Madagascar is far poorer than Ivory Coast and Ghana, so that income is even more impactful. Income is easy to quantify, but sometimes things that are harder to measure, like aspiration, are just as important.

TH: You've cut out the middlemen and built a factory in Madagascar. Tell us about this factory and in the co-packer facility in Europe.

BG: It was not easy, but yes, we did build a chocolate factory, and yes, our supply chain has zero middlemen between the farmer and factory. We now have 50 full-time team members at the factory. These are people who didn’t eat chocolate before they started making it. Now they make chocolate and eat it, but mainly make it.  

We produce roughly 25% of our chocolate at a contract manufacturer in Italy. They are terrific partners that provide stability and scale to our supply chain while we continue to do what we love to do in Madagascar. 

TH: Could you sum up for readers why exactly your brand is "Beyond Good"?

BG: There’s a bit of a double meaning in the brand name. Most honest people inside of the chocolate industry know that the industry is not sustainable. They know that the money and programs directed toward sustainability are not working because real sustainability requires going beyond the current business model. Secondly, there is no shortage of cheap commodity chocolate on the market. In fact, there’s a flood of it.  And that's what most people have come to accept as good chocolate. Madagascar chocolate, when done well, goes beyond the relatively bland and boring flavor of most chocolates.

TH: What can readers do to support your efforts?

BG: They can buy our chocolate!

There you have it. It really is simple. If you are a bit of a chocoholic, rather than buying your usual brand, consider making a sustainable choice and try Beyond Good chocolate instead.

Note: Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.