Rodney: “If nobody gives us a job, we’ll create it ourselves”

News overview

DOEN Participaties invests in pioneers who follow an entrepreneurial approach to create a better world. This is the story of Rodney Nikkels, co-founder of Chocolatemakers, an artisan chocolate maker whose entire production process is organised as fairly and healthily as possible for people and the environment.

We do it ourselves

After graduating in Tropical Agriculture at Wageningen University, I saw many fellow students go into IT. This was at a time when we all still feared the big Y2K bug that would cause all the computers worldwide to crash at the same time. Other than that, there wasn’t much work in our field. I was at a point where I had to choose: should I also go into IT or not? Finally, I made a decision. We would go ahead and if no one gave us a job, we would create it ourselves! That’s how it began. With a fellow student, I established a foundation to help organisations. That was also the first time I came into contact with the DOEN Foundation. What immediately appealed to me at the time was that they thought the same as me: you just have to DO it.

A chocolate pioneer in times of crisis

I started Chocolatemakers together with Enver in 2011. It was actually very bad timing – in the midst of an economic crisis. Still, I think it helped us. Consumers wanted to go from global back to local. In the crisis, there was a real desire for locally produced products made with attention to quality. So we got off to a flying start. In any case, it is easier in the beginning with a product like ours. Everyone thinks you are kind, likeable and nice. Until the point you expand, become more visible and suddenly start to snatch market share from others. A Spanish colleague I spoke to the other day expressed this beautifully. He said that our companies always operate at different layers. And the problem is not so much one of getting to the next stage, but staying there. It is therefore best to grow slowly and steadily. Although that will always be a battle what’s smartest from a business point of view and what you prefer to do as a person. Sometimes you want to go faster than is good for you.

Fairtrade is not enough

One of the greatest eye-openers working for Chocolatemakers was realising that the Fairtrade model for cocoa is actually underdeveloped. That there are people who get the minimum price in line with the model, yet still live in extreme poverty. In the past, I worked a lot with this model and it was always, ‘We have to do it together!’ But then I thought, who’s going to start? In this respect, consumer confidence in the NGOs, the watchdogs, has declined considerably. We don’t want to be sourpusses at all, yet the realisation that this world does not live up to expectations has inspired me tremendously. We will do it differently. We pay the parties we work with far more than the model prescribes as sufficient. While the consumer pays the price for this, we can explain why. People accept this because it is pure and authentic. We see this time and again.

Take our partner Tres Hombres, for example. They sail the oceans with an unmotorised wooden cargo ship. Now I like sailing quite a bit myself, but what they do is out of the ordinary. Every time they arrive in Amsterdam with our products, we invite everyone to help unload. That’s when you can tell our work really has an impact and resonates with people. Our crowdfunding campaign was also completed in a weekend. In that regard, we really feel respected by our consumers – although we’re not in daily contact with them, they’re who we do it for.

Concept can travel the world

Throughout our journey, the DOEN Foundation has been willing to help us build. DOEN may not seem very accessible to the outside world, but it certainly feels that way to us. The people who work there understand what we are doing. Thanks in part to this support, we continue to grow and will soon be relocating to a factory that provides its own energy supply. This almost marks the concept’s conclusion. Organic cocoa, partly transported across the ocean by sail and processed and produced using solar energy. The foundations have been established and, as far as I am concerned, the concept can be replicated worldwide wherever possible!

Drastic changes are needed to combat depletion of the earth and climate change. What we need is a restorative and circular economy that takes into account the load-bearing capacity of the Earth and the basic needs of all people. DOEN supports the pioneers of Chocolatemakers because they believe in a circular economy and bring it one step closer every day. Want to know more? Then read more about our ‘Circular Entrepreneurship‘ programme.