How A Small Liberian Startup Got Silicon Valley Eating Its Chocolate

Dandelion Chocolate needs no introduction in Silicon Valley. The bean to bar, small batch artisanal chocolate company Dandelion, has created quite a name and following amongst the San Franciscan foodies. There is a lot that has been written about the company – on how two tech founders sold their startup for million dollars and then started a chocolate company or about their process from sourcing fine cocoa beans to making rich flavorful chocolates. This article however is not about Dandelion Chocolate or how they make it but about one of their cocoa bean supplier, Liberation Cocoa.

This is the story of Liberation Cocoa, how a small, fairly new cocoa trading startup in Liberia with a big dream of rebuilding their war torn country using cocoa came about to become a supplier to one of the most exquisite and loved chocolate company.

In 2012, Sheikh A Turay, the founder of Liberation Cococa then known as Desert Trading Inc was introduced to me by Unreasonable Institute. Unreasonable Institute is one of the prestigious incubators for the social good startups based in Colorado. Every year thousand of social entrepreneurs from world over apply to get a place at Unreasonable Institute. In 2012 Sheikh Turay was selected as a finalist by the incubator but was having difficulty raising USD10,000 he needed to be able to attend the institute in the US. Sheikh was introduced to me so I could help him spread the word about his cause and help him raise the money . I had a skype call with Sheikh and over a really bad connection I managed to learn about his venture and his plan to revitalize cocoa farming in Liberia, through that improve the lives of rural communities and former child soldiers.

Liberia as Sheikh explained was once a major producer of cocoa however during the 14 year long civil war in the country, cocoa production took a major hit. The farmers were forced to abandon their farms and their farms were totally neglected. And though the war ended in 2003, Liberians were still struggling to cope with the aftermath. Sheikh’s strategy was to identify abandon cocoa farms and their owners, provide all necessary support to these farmers to enhance production. His company then began to purchase the cocoa yield to sell to the buyers in the international market.

Sheikh at that point had no connection with the outside world, not even a web presence and was betting heavily on getting into the Unreasonable Institute in order to build his network and to raise some capital.

A previous article that I wrote about how cocoa farming in Liberia is helping revive the country (Desert Trading Inc) inspired people to help, Sheikh ended up raising USD10,000 in record time and went on to attend the Unreasonable Institute in the summer of 2012. He spent five weeks in Colorado where he was groomed for success. He got an opportunity to meet with food industry experts and successful entrepreneurs who helped him fine tune his idea. He got help with his business planning, marketing and a total makeover of his venture. He renamed his startup from Desert Trading Inc to Liberation Cocoa to reflect the activities his startup would undertake. Got a website up and a U.S based board of directors, which included leaders from the food, wellness, and financial industries. He also made a lot of connections. He got to know people from the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) and was invited to participate at the SOCAP Conference in San Francisco later that year. SOCAP is a leading, highly coveted conference in the social good space that brings impact investors, social entrepreneurs and other actors from world over under one roof. At SOCAP, Sheikh made a connection with a large cocoa buyer in New York. He travelled to New York to discuss the deal and closed his first trade of 25 tons of cocoa. From there he was introduced to another chocolate maker in Hawaii and from there he was introduced on to Dandelion Chocolate. When Sheikh told me over the phone that he just shipped a batch of cocoa to Dandelion Chocolate, I was so excited to hear that. It was just amazing to learn that the company that I knew and helped in their early days when they were so young is now a major player in this new chocolate movement of bean to bar, single origin, artisanal chocolates.

It’s been great to see the momentum Sheikh Turay and his venture has gained. When I first spoke to him all he had was a vision to use cocoa farming to lift his country out of poverty. Two years down the road its great to see the kind of global connections he has made and the focus he has gained.

It clearly shows the important role social incubators like Unreasonable Institute play in helping give the much needed lift up to social good startups  that go on to do things that help this world be a better place for everyone.

To get a taste of Liberation Cocoa try a delicious bar of Butuo Liberia 70%

Filed under: Grow


Deepa Chaudhary

I have extensively worked at grass-roots from working in the slums of Mumbai to being on the frontline of numerous disaster relief efforts. I'm passionate about social entrepreneurship and I love discovering and writing about new trends in the social good space.