A Case Study on Purpose: Tony's Chocolonely


Zig Ziglar once said that “outstanding people have one thing in common: an absolute sense of mission.” If we can think of any business which exemplifies this statement, it’s Tony’s Chocolonely, a growing company headquartered in Amsterdam. Their mission? To eradicate child slavery from the global chocolate industry. 

Founded by Dutch journalists Teun van de Keuken and Maurice Dekkers with the help of Roland Duong, Tony’s Chocolonely has unusual roots for an entrepreneurial venture. In fact, when the three men first encountered “the chocolate case,” they were more focused on their informative television program than they were on producing a product to sell worldwide. Yet their work as the “Consumers Investigation Agency” for Dutch television soon led them to face head-on the moral problems of the chocolate industry. And all they did was ask: where does this product really come from? The answer came as quite the shock. 

While chocolate is one of the most widely consumed products in the world, with the chocolate industry itself being worth more than $98 billion in 2016, the cacao beans used by major companies are being harvested by children as young as six in West Africa, often against their will. The situation is especially bad in the Ivory Coast, which has been called the “capital of slavery” when it comes to chocolate. In fact, according to a 2015 report from Tulane University and the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 2 million children in these areas are working in “hazardous” conditions for the cocoa industry.

As one former child slave testified: 

“If you didn’t work, they beat you. If you caused trouble, they’d kill you. We only received food once a day. We were fed poorly and lost a lot of weight. Anyone who refused to work would be taken along at night. It meant that he’d been killed. Very many boys disappeared, but they’d be replaced by others. I don’t know where they came from. More than 500 of us worked at the plantation. When the war broke out, everyone fled. We left at night and didn’t know where we were. Everyone started to run in all directions. It was a difficult journey. We’d left everything behind. When we got here, we were emaciated. Our parents cried. It was really terrible.”  -Kam Sami Felix

In 2003, Teun van de Keuken had already decided to do something about the human rights violations in the chocolate industry. He’d even attempted to turn himself in to the authorities for financing child slavery through his consumption of chocolate produced by major brands. However, no one in Amsterdam had taken him seriously. “Everyone eats chocolate,” the police had said. Yet, absolutely determined to make the public more aware of the issue, Teun hired a lawyer hoping to bring his case to court; but no judge would hear it. And so Teun found himself in Burkina Faso, documenting the testimonies of Kam Sami Felix and others, expecting that this evidence would finally compel a judge to act. 

After all, Dutch laws stated very clearly that if you knowingly purchase a commodity that’s the product of a crime - in this case, chocolate - it could lead to a maximum sentence of four years in prison. But even with first hand accounts from former chocolate plantation slaves, the process would take years. The team decided that they would have to stay on the case, and keep the issue in the forefront of public opinion. Luckily for them, by 2005 two important events were scheduled to take place. 

First, it was the deadline for an international agreement known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which had been agreed upon by the heads of eight major chocolate companies. Basically, by July 1, 2005, child slavery and trafficking practices within the chocolate industry were supposed to end; however, it soon became abundantly clear that this would not happen. Not in the slightest. 

Second was the release of Tim Burton’s rendition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (we highly recommend that you just watch the Gene Wilder original…for your health). Unlike the fizzled out political protocol, Teun and Maurice saw real promise in this film. Now was their chance to raise global consumer awareness of the problem they hoped to solve. They ultimately decided that the best way to accomplish this was to have a 100% guaranteed slave-free chocolate bar released to the public in time for the film - just to prove that it could be done. 

They reached out to Nestlé, a major sponsor of the film, but such a chocolate bar was not in the company’s best interest, so they refused. Then Teun and Maurice turned to the widow of Roald Dahl, the author of the children’s book on which the film was based. While Felicity Dahl liked the idea, she had no rights to the chocolate whatsoever and could be of no help in their struggle. So, in a last ditch effort, they turned to Ben & Jerry’s for a slave-free chocolate ice cream they hoped to call Tony’s Chocolonely; but the company refused. Still, the film was about to be released and the team was running out of time. 

Suddenly, the idea dawned on them: why not produce the chocolate bar ourselves? They already had the name - Tony’s Chocolonely - and a clear mission. Why not just jump in and do it?

11,000 euros later, the team had 10,000 200-gram milk chocolate bars with a bright red label proudly stating: Tony’s Chocolonely - on our way to eradicating child slavery. Soon they partnered with Shakies, a socially responsible entrepreneurship outlet in the Netherlands, and the bars flew off the shelves. Within minutes of launch, they were completely sold out. And that was just the beginning 

Today, Tony’s Chocolonely works directly with 7,000 cacao bean farmers in West Africa to ensure that no human rights are violated as their product transforms from bean to bar. As Arjen Boekhold, chain manager for the company, explains, “We won’t accept that even a single cocoa bean gets produced by means of dangerous and illegal child labor, slavery or exploitation. That is very important to us. And the moment we encounter forced labor or human trafficking, then it’s unconditional and we say: This stops now or we’re gone.” 

The company even takes the process one step further through their strategic partnership with Barry Callebaut, a major player in the chocolate industry. As the former President of the company, Onno Bleeker, explained: in a traditional process “you can show the beans have come in, but not which machine they went into or which end product they ended up in, nor was that ever the question; but their question was specifically: I want the beans that I just bought to be used for the chocolate that will go into my end product.” It had never been done before. 

Now, at Barry Callebaut’s factory in Wieze, Belgium, the company has built a special system for Tony’s Chocolonely. Everything is segregated from the very beginning, meaning that the cocoa beans produced by the 7,000 farmers working in collaboration with Tony’s are treated and roasted separately from all other cocoa beans. Even the liquid chocolate is stored in a complete separate tank. This allows the small Dutch company to trace their chocolate all the way from the beans bought in West Africa to the finished product on your grocery store’s shelves, ensuring that their product truly is 100% slave-free. 

As the company’s Chief Chocolate Officer, Henk Jan Beltman, points out: this is the core process that makes Tony’s mission possible. “And I’m going to push as hard as we can to actually force other companies to work in the same way. There is no one in the world who wants to enjoy chocolate that comes from a source that’s enslaved.” The hope is that, by proving that chocolate  sold to consumers can be 100% guaranteed slave-free, other companies will follow suit and assist in eradicating child slavery from the chocolate industry altogether. As Henk says, “The reason that we are a company is not that we want to sell chocolate and not that we want to make money. We want to make the world a nicer place.” 

Of course, when they started Tony’s Chocolonely, Teun and Maurice didn’t set out to steal market share from other chocolate companies, or even to change Africa. The guiding purpose was always to change the way consumers thought about chocolate itself.  That was their mission, and the company’s reason for being. And while Tony’s Chocolonely is a tiny brand compared to the major players in the industry, they’re still proving that chocolate companies can operate in a different way. Now it’s up to consumers to vote with their pocketbooks to determine whether or not Tony’s way is the way all chocolate should be produced moving forward. But if three journalists in the Netherlands can become entrepreneurs in the pursuit of a single goal, so can you. As Maurice puts it, “Don’t think about it. Just do it! Yes, it’s hard, but that comes later. First you have to make a start.” 

Choose to be your own Tony and fight for what you believe in.