How we created a social enterprise with global appeal

Sophi Tranchell of Divine Chocolate shares her tips for creating a successful social enterprise with global appeal.

When we first pitched the concept of a delicious Fairtrade chocolate that was owned in part by Ghanaian cocoa producers, a lot of people told us it was a nice idea but that it wasn’t commercially viable in the long run. We were passionate about challenging this misconception. 

We wanted to prove that it is possible to create a business where people are valued just as much as profits – a business that could have a positive impact on the communities that helped build it. I believe that, at Divine, we have achieved this and I want to inspire other entrepreneurs to do the same.

We’re coming to the end of another Fairtrade Fortnight – the annual campaign to raise awareness of Fairtrade products. Not only that but, for me, the Fortnight is a celebration of how the UK is leading the way in supporting better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for producers across the developing world.

It’s for these very reasons that Divine Chocolate was formed back in 1998, in partnership with 80,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana. The farmers benefit not only from the Fairtrade premium on the sale of their beans, a 45% share of Divine’s distributed profits, and in addition 2% of annual turnover, giving them more economic stability, as well as an increased influence in the cocoa industry.

I’m proud to say that, as a social enterprise which supports the Fairtrade agenda, Divine is the only chocolate company of its kind. We’ve proved ourselves on two fronts. 

Not only have we succeeded in proving Divine’s social enterprise credentials by changing lives in the developing world, we have proved we have a viable business model that can yield rewards for all involved. We now sell chocolate products to global consumers in markets including the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and South Korea to name a few.

Although this seems like a massive achievement – and some may think a one off – I think that almost anybody who wants to start a social enterprise can make the same impact if they get their business model right.

It’s very important to articulate and reinforce your mission statement in everything you do. This means ensuring that the central purpose of your organisation is at the core of all business materials, the internal and external conversations you may have about your business and any media or advertising work you do. By doing this, you’ll find that your staff, suppliers and customers quickly buy into your central proposition, providing a sound platform for growth.

Getting the right financial support is another key factor in creating a successful social enterprise. You need to bring in people and organisations that share your mission and values. We were successful in attracting investment from Body Shop and the Christian Aid and Comic Relief charities. 

We also secured a £400,000 loan guarantee from the Department for International Development, which enabled our fledgling company to secure funding and the means by which the farmers could earn their share in the business. 

My advice would be to do as much research as possible into all potential avenues for funding and take opportunities that come your way – but make sure they complement the ethos of your business.

In addition to funding, I’d suggest that social enterprises take advantage of the range of services on offer, by both the public and private sector, to help businesses meet their full potential. I’m involved in the ‘Business is GREAT Britain’ campaign, which aims to build confidence amongst small businesses and encourage them to plan, hire and export. 

It raises awareness of the Government support available to small firms to help them achieve their growth ambitions. One scheme we got involved in was Knowledge Transfer Partnerships which gives businesses access to the knowledge and expertise within UK universities. 

We worked with Liverpool John Moores University who helped us with our New Product Development process including a focus on our packaging, food technologies and operations. We have also had access to export markets through UK Trade & Investment food trade fairs. This has been incredibly valuable for us and has helped us to enhance the skills and reach of our business.

Another important thing to consider when starting up a social enterprise is your product offering. If, like Divine, you have plans for global expansion it’s important to do your homework on the product and the territories you want to sell it in. Make sure your product is a good fit for all of the markets you’re looking to enter, whether they are domestic or overseas.

For instance, with chocolate, we were conscious that tastes vary from country to country and we needed to consider if the product would sell well in places where dairy is not commonly eaten. You’ve also got to think about whether your product is named appropriately, or whether the fact that you are a social enterprise is enough of a selling point in a foreign market. On a practical level, we had to consider whether our product was suitable for hotter climates and how this impacted on which countries we would be prepared to export to.

Finally, people are the thing that really make a successful social enterprise. You need employees who have the knowledge, energy – and most of all – passion to really promote and champion your business. Put the effort in to ensure you employ the right people, as a bad recruitment decision – particularly in a small business – can take up time and resources that you can’t afford to spare.

I believe that passion and vision are at the heart of every successful social enterprise; but this should be supported by the right business planning and skills. A social enterprise may exist to benefit the world around it, but it is still a business and needs a sound strategy in order to succeed.

Sophi is a ‘Business is GREAT Britain’ ambassador and appears in the campaign’s latest advertising campaign. Find out more about setting up a social enterprise

Related: Growth for good: Let’s create an epidemic

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