Many cocoa farmers in the Third World live off a dollar or two a day and produce cocoa for the multi-billiondollar
chocolate industry. In 2014, newlywed Bellingham couple Paul and Ari-Lee Newman embarked on a journey to improve the lives of these impoverished farmers.
Almost five years later, the couple is working with women’s cocoa co-operatives in the Dominican Republic and Peru to import their harvest, produce and sell BIJA chocolates for a
good cause in shops across Bellingham and British Columbia as well as online to anyone who wants a bite. Their work has drawn national attention, even a recent feature on NBC’s Today Show.
BIJA manufactures its chocolate in British Columbia but runs its distribution and main office from Bellingham. Their Bellingham location is growing as the company works to keep up with demand from Amazon online sales. The bars cost around $5 and are available in local shops and grocery stores.
The Newmans have spent their lives dedicated to helping others. They’ve been in the natural products business for the past 15 years. One of Newman’s passion projects was a 15-year documentary, “Shadow of a Revolution,” which followed the lives of displaced and homeless children in Romania. “I’ve always had a general insatiable desire to know and understand the lives of others,” Newman says. Lee-Newman grew up in a small town in Wyoming, where she said it was natural to take care of your neighbor. She got her start volunteering on a medical mission to Honduras when she was 16. Together, the two spent their honeymoon distributing vitamins in India.
Newman said after their honeymoon they realized they had the apps, tools, experience, drive and desire to start BIJA. “We just saw that there was a responsibility and an opportunity to help our global neighbors,” Lee-Newman says.
BIJA means “the seed and the source of life” in Sanskrit and all of their chocolate bars are organic. Most of them contain only five high-quality ingredients and sell for about five dollars a bar. BIJA works with 550 farmers and seven different women’s cooperatives in the Dominican Republic and Peru, and they work to create a community that can thrive and grow.
“We’re really intentional about where we go based on the partners that we hear about or that we’re able to find,” LeeNewman says.
The women’s co-ops they partner with help women become an economic voice in their household and help them to provide for their families. Newman says the work the coops do is about helping to build an empowered community.
In the Dominican Republic, for example, a woman named Amarylis worked in one of BIJA’s first co-ops alongside her mother and daughter. Newman says the co-ops have allowed them to stay close together.
“Typically, these women would have to go two-and-a-half hours into the main city, many times work Monday through Friday in the town as maids, or house cleaners,” Newman says. “They would be gone from their families through the whole week and then they would come back for the weekend.”
BIJA is an organic chocolate bar and Newman said they work to help cocoa farmers get an organic certification that meets U.S. standards. The process can cost thousands of dollars.
The first farmers they planned on partnering with didn’t meet the U.S. standard for certified organic food, which left them with a choice to make. “We had a decision to make at that moment and that decision was A, do we kind of punt on this group and move forward or B, do we stick with them and help them acquire the certification so that we could actually start working with them,” Newman says. “The smart business decision would have been to punt and move forward, but that really wasn’t our objective. Our objective was to really help support these groups.”
Newman says the certification can help the farmer’s cocoa become a highly sought-after commodity on the global market. Instead of selling cocoa for $1.70 a kilo, they can possibly sell it for $2.85 or $3 a kilo, Newman says.
“Part of the mechanism for this certification program is that we do the process for the certification, and then we would be giving back the certificate to the group,” Newman says. “It’s in their name. They’re not tied to us, they can sell to whomever makes chocolates.”
They currently work with seven cooperatives, but their goal is to expand to 24, two in each country along the equatorial belt where cocoa grows.
“We believe that we’re all interconnected and if we do something it will directly positively or negatively impact somebody,” Newman says. He says he wants to provide the opportunity to learn about the people behind their chocolate bars.
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