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Corps to Career: Chocolate that reinvests in Madagascar communities

Madécasse Tim McCollum

Tim McCollum is one of two returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Madagascar and returned home to create the company Madécasse, which produces fine chocolates while investing back in Malagasy communities.

I studied abroad my junior year in college. I was blown away the humbling nature of living in another country. Junior year is also the time where you start to think about “What am I going to do after college?” I asked this question a lot when I was studying abroad. I wanted the cross-cultural experience, but I wanted it to be deeper and more meaningful. I then remembered my sophomore year in high school, when our French teacher brought in a former student of his who was currently a [Peace Corps Volunteer] in Togo. He told us about life as a PCV. The dots connected for me and once I had it in my mind, it was the easiest decision I ever made.

[As a Volunteer in Madagascar], I worked in the Education sector. My primary project was teaching middle school and high school level students English as a foreign language. In addition to the students, I was also taught anyone who showed up at my door with an inclination to learn a few words in English. This was a diverse group; it included older people in the community who hadn’t made it past the second grade, the members of the professional community in my town (i.e. people who had a Monday to Friday job), younger brothers and sisters of my students (some of which weren’t even old enough to speak their native language), etc.

My secondary project was a peer mentorship program called Sekoly c’est Cool (School is Cool). “Cool” means “cool” in… probably every language on the planet. I teamed up with four other Volunteers and we took the best and the brightest students from our respective towns to the regional capital city for a week. We paired them up with leading professionals in the capital, so they could shadow them at work and learn how they had used their education to make a better life for themselves and their families.

In the U.S., the connection between education and higher wages is common sense. In a country like Madagascar, where 90 percent of the population has no formal employment, it takes more of an imagination and a nudge for a student to see how to use education to create more opportunities for themselves. It’s certainly not a given.

Madécasse would not have happened without my Peace Corps service.  I did a bit of a philosophical 180 in the Peace Corps, in that I entered as a wide-eyed and optimistic Volunteer and left with the knowledge that commerce is required to lift people out of poverty. It took me six years to figure out what to do with that knowledge, but there wasn’t a day that went by over those six years that I didn’t think about Madagascar and building some type of business there that would eventually turn into the ultimate extension of my original Peace Corps service.

Today I’m the co-founder and CEO of Madécasse Chocolate & Vanilla. As a company, we do a couple of unconventional things in the chocolate industry. Consumers don’t just want a product that does good. They want a better product that does good.

First, our mission is make chocolate entirely in Madagascar. This reverses some trends that have long held back economic growth in Madagascar, or across Africa for that matter. The issue is that economies in the developing world are heavily focused on the export of raw materials, commodities like coffee, cocoa and sugar. Our view is that a commodity is the definition of poverty. The grower has no ability to influence the value of their work.

So we work with more than 200 cocoa farmers in Madagascar’s northwest corner. We help get more value from their crop by installing fermentation and drying equipment, and teaching them how to use it. Performing these value-added steps generates about 60 percent more income from their crop.

Those efforts are sort of a microcosm of the bigger picture in our supply chain. Eight hundred kilometers down the road from the cocoa region, in the capital city, we work with a local manufacturer to produce chocolate from start to finish.

The second thing we do differently is that that we work with some of the finest flavor cocoa in the world. Madagascar’s crop contains some of the last genetically pure cocoa (heirloom cocoa) left in the world. The result in flavor is a dark chocolate bar that is not bitter and even has naturally fruity aftertastes. So the chocolate actually tastes different than what most U.S consumers are accustomed to eating.

We’re working on growing the Madécasse business – and with it our social impact. We’re in the middle of a couple of large projects in the U.S. aimed at increasing our reach with customers and couple of initiatives in Madagascar that will enable us to source more cocoa and produce more chocolate.