Me And My Partner

Pauline Tiffen, 40, co-founded the fair trade coffee brand Cafédirect in 1991. She established The Day Chocolate Company and recruited managing director Sophi Tranchell, 35. They work with 35,000 Ghanaian cocoa farmers, and turn over £1m a year
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Pauline Tiffen: Nobody is ambivalent about chocolate. As a way into any conversation, it's unbeatable. People ask me: "What do you do?" and away I go. I didn't have anything to do with trading when I was younger and if anyone had told me in my 20s that I would have been doing this job, I wouldn't have given it credence. It didn't seem like me. I never knew business could be such fun and you don't have to follow the profit motive.

Pauline Tiffen: Nobody is ambivalent about chocolate. As a way into any conversation, it's unbeatable. People ask me: "What do you do?" and away I go. I didn't have anything to do with trading when I was younger and if anyone had told me in my 20s that I would have been doing this job, I wouldn't have given it credence. It didn't seem like me. I never knew business could be such fun and you don't have to follow the profit motive.

I trained as a linguist and studied in the Soviet Union, where I met a lot of Africans far from home. My way into the Third World wasn't politics, it was friendship and that made an enormous difference to how I viewed it. In the 1980s I was a freelance journalist and wrote about things that seemed to matter to me, and that was how I got to meet other people from African countries.

I worked as an editor at the Third World Book Review, then went on to the Third World Information Network (Twin), set up in 1985 by Ken Livingstone for creating links to exchange goods and services for mutual benefit.

I became a coffee trader, trading green beans from Mexican farmers, but found it frustrating because while we were helping peasant farmers to get to market, we couldn't influence what the market makers did. With Cafédirect, a project we started when coffee prices collapsed, we said: "Maybe we should be on the other side talking to consumers."

We set up a company to manage the Cafédirect brand and in 1993 I began to think about the next step, fairly traded chocolate. We were working with cocoa farmers in Ghana, and decided we had to take on the chocolate market as well. Even more than coffee, chocolate is a dominated market and four companies in the world own everything. A bit crazily perhaps, we thought we would take them on. We thought, it's chocolate so everyone will care about it one way or another.

Myself and our chairman were looking for someone to lead this new company. In 1999 Sophi saw the advert: "Come and work in a chocolate company and change the world." We discovered ours had been a partnership waiting to happen. I had been in Latin America working with coffee farmers while Sophi was promoting Latin American films in Britain. What we were both trying to do was give people a voice.

Sophi is a good person and able; that was clear to me. She is spirited and has a vision that business has to have purpose. At her previous job at Metro Tartan she showed she was prepared to be in an incredibly competitive industry with that purpose. There's a complete clarity which informs everything she does.

When I met her, I felt as if I was looking in a mirror. Where we really got to know each other was in Ghana during a trip to the growers' AGM. We were dancing in a village with the farmers one afternoon and felt we were going to make history.

A lot of people I have met in the Third World have a strong belief in something. I don't think they allow themselves the luxury of cynicism because in the face of such difficulties, they would give up. To be cynical is to say you can't do anything about anything. I've always felt there were things I could do if I felt passionate and didn't get put off, and I used to make a joke about that line in the film Terminator II: "The future is not set."

People say I am strategic, and I think a lot around corners and about out-of-sight stuff. That means I'm not a good operational director but I'm better at taking care of specific projects. Sophi is good at the day-to-day stuff and has a really fantastic eye for detail. She is ahead of me in aesthetics. I do words, but she is very good at the art of the symbolic item in things like posters; I wouldn't want to take responsibility for my taste.

We are both practical about acknowledging problems and would never hide anything. I think other people probably find us too straight.

Conventional companies often have no idea just what fantastic partners their suppliers can be, because they never give chance for relationships to be based on trust. You could never cover every eventuality in a contract but if you shake hands on it you can. We save a lot of money operationally that way.

The difficulty is to project sales, but having made a commitment to the farmers they have backed us all the way and will never let us run out of cocoa beans. The messages traditionally associated with chocolate are gratification, energy, treat. We're not saying chocolate shouldn't be about indulgence but it also has to be about reciprocity, and that message makes it hard for others to imitate us.

If you are going to do an audacious project - and this company is audacious, if you remember we are up against these transnational corporations - then you have to be brave. You have to constantly think around the problems. Our challenge is not to try to replicate conventional marketing but to reach people through guerrilla tactics such as word-of-mouth.

And for all I have said about being alternative, we are serious about what we are doing, and if there are four companies that dominate everything, we are going to be a fifth.

Sophi Tranchell: I studied philosophy and politics at Warwick, where I met South African and Namibian students who had been exiled. It was the mid-Eighties, at the peak of anti-apartheid, and I became a political campaigner. When I left university, I worked in an ecumenical chaplaincy where we had a cafe selling Nicaraguan coffee, Tanzanian tea and Cuban mints, and that was probably the first time I came across fair trade.

I was at Metro Tartan for 10 years and worked my way through book-keeping, then PR and marketing, before I became managing director. We introduced the early Pedro Almodovar films to Britain and set up a Latin American film festival to try to create critical response to films no one knew about. I supervised the poster designs and my job was to watch a film and then think, how can I sell this to the British public? I used the visual layout to try to show the commonality. That's what foreign films are about, to show you the world through someone else's eyes. A film noir is a film noir, whether it comes from Latin America or elsewhere.

In May 1999 I was looking for a new challenge. My father had given Divine chocolate to my children for Valentine's Day, and they both thought it tasted nice, and I had been given a postcard with the picture of a little African boy with a bar of Divine. I thought it was an irresistible proposition, delicious chocolate that would directly benefit the farmers. It tied in with the Metro message. They were taking the conventional film a stage further; this was taking chocolate a stage further.

Pauline interviewed me then we went to Ghana together. We just hit it off immediately, and it was fun. The more we talked to each other, the more we realised our lives had run in parallel and we were bound to meet at some time.

She has such an enormous knowledge, and when I think: "How does that work?" I will just go and chat to her. We have a youth project we are bringing to the market in September with Comic Relief, and it was Pauline who brought in that charity to back us, and also brought in Christian Aid.

She's a person everyone in this sector would refer to because of her relationship with the farmers. She's given them time and if they had a problem they would come to her. She really wants to know, and isn't phased by it being a world apart. The retailers I have met have been interested to have something more than a chocolate bar to sell, and there hasn't been a supermarket buyer who hasn't said the chocolate is great. Understanding how supermarkets work has been an incredible experience for me, because they have such a power over us. Everyone in Britain has to go shopping but it's revealing to reflect on what choices are really available.

The research we have done shows people buy three to five chocolate products a week, and we're trialling to get people to taste ours. The British chocolate taste is very specific, to do with texture and melting in the mouth. People here defined their chocolate taste mainly through Cadburys. For us, that initial purchase of Divine is important.

Pauline and I have completely bought into the idea of partnership, empowering the producers by opening the market and empowering British consumers by giving them real choices. We have a 150g bar and a 45g bar which sells in NUS shops and wholefood stores and cafes, but it would be nice to do a selection, as well as dark chocolate.

Pauline has endless energy and it's great working with someone so enthusiastic. It's amazing when we have a meeting - we will get a piece of paper and both will write the same things down. It's uncanny how much we are in tune.