Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz is the co-founder and CEO of Les Chocolateries Askanya whos craft chocolate bars feature Haitian cacao along with the bars being made Haiti.
All of the chocolate makers at Askanya are women and Askanya happens to be celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year. (Congrats and wishing you many more years Les Chocolateries Askanya!).
Studying industrial engineering and achieving an MBA, Corinne long-term vision was to create both a business and jobs, but she didn’t know at the time those dreams began that the business would be in craft chocolate.
(My personal favorite Askanya bar is the 65% Bouquet Vert Lime Chocolate dark chocolate bar with a lime zest inclusion with the zest also coming from Haiti-based MyaBel Food & Beverage).
Corinne’s openness and personality shine through in this interview and I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I have.
Victoria Cooksey: How has your work/life experience, travel and education all lead you to start a craft chocolate business?
Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz: Unfortunately, I was not the chocolate lover. I didn’t get in the craft chocolate business because I was a chocoholic (Sorry, Victoria – but I do love delicious food, in general).
Growing up in Haiti, I was aware of the poverty and lack of opportunities surrounding me (whether it was the cook asking for extra help to pay for her grandson tuition or the housekeeper needing money for a medical emergency). As a teenager (back then), I promised to myself: when I grow up, I will not just do “charity”, I will create jobs.
I figured studying industrial engineering and getting an MBA would help me run a business efficiently and profitably, when I was ready to realize this bucket list item of mine.
So almost 15 years later, I had the skills and knowledge and was deciding what business to run. By then, I wanted my business to generate revenues for farmers (since 60% of Haiti’s population are susbsistence farmers), to create blue-collar jobs (since only 4% of the population has a four-year degree) and finally to be outside of the capital Port-au-Prince to provide opportunities in the countryside. Then (only then) I started researching crops, and learned about several crops, among them cacao and the nascent potential of the craft chocolate industry. The rest is History.
VC: What does chocolate mean to you?
CJSS: Prior to getting in the craft cacao industry – nothing! Or maybe just hot chocolate on Sunday. Now, it can be considered as a black gold – good for you (health-wise), good for the growers (financially); so good for the world!
VC: What makes Haitian cacao special?
CJSS: For one, we have some vintage cacao trees in Haiti (older specimen). In addition, compared to Ecuador that has big uniform cacao estate, Haitian farmers cultivate “ tropical garden”; where on less than a quarter of an acre (sometimes smaller parcels), they have a little bit of everything (mango, lime, orange, coffee, vetiver, plantain,.., and cacao). Therefore, it feels that all this “mélange” gets in the taste of the Haitian cacao beans.
VC: How was chocolate viewed in Haiti and used in daily life/holidays when you were growing up? How has that changed now that craft chocolate is available?
CJSS: Growing up, we almost only had chocolate as “hot chocolate” drink. They would be the artisanal cacao mass (so 100% cacao (fermented sometimes, dried always) that was cracked, unshelled and grinded sometimes by hand and turned into a small ball) that would be mix with spices and hot milk and sugar. Craft chocolate is still very new in Haiti – we (Askanya) still get compared to Hershey or M&M Mars –a very new “industry” requires a lot of education of potential customers. In addition, if you think about it – craft chocolate is frankly still unaffordable to most Haitian (as the GDP is $800/year) – so a very small part of the population can afford a $5 or $8/bar.
VC: Why is it important to work with cacao famers directly? What does that involve?
CJSS: When working with intermediaries, farmers really just get peanuts for their crops (sometimes as little as 5% of the final resale price) and often they can not live off their lands and end up giving up and moving to the city (which creates rural exodus – another problem as often enough jobs are not available in the big cities). Therefore being able to offer a living wage (not a minimum wage) to the farmers is important to make it worth their effort and their time in order for them to live decently from growing and harvesting the cacao (and passing on a profitable or at least living trade to their kids). For us, the living wage ended up paying the farmer almost 7 times the local rate for their cacao pod / beans.
VC: Any tips on how to begin the process of direct trade/sourcing cacao beans for people interested in making bean-to-bar chocolate?
CJSS: First, try to find a reputable firm (ask around to chocolate experts, like you Victoria). In the USA, Uncommon and Meridian are the most known / established. In Haiti, you can rely on us (through our sister firm – G&S Cacao), or contact PISA (via Uncommon Cacao) and FECCANO (selling mostly on the European market). Then once you decide who to work with, it’s time to ask for a sample. From there, it’s working together and making the cost and logistics work for the two partners. This process has worked for our clients and they keep coming back for more.
VC: How has your business benefited your community? How does your company empower women in your community?
CJSS: We source our cacao from 500 cacao farmers in rural communities in Northern Haiti (Grande Rivière du Nord and Limonade); our sugar cane from 200 sugarcane farmers in Center Haiti (Thomonde) and our lime and oranges from Myabel, a farm located in West Haiti (Croix Des Bouquets). Thanks to our recurrent purchases, we provide direct revenues within these farming communities; money that can be used for food, health, education and more.
All our chocolate makers are women – young adults and / or mothers. Working in our chocolate factory was often their first formal work opportunity, for a company that respect them, treat them well, pay them on time. Many of them have been able since then to rent their own apartment, provide adequately for their children / dependents and become the breadwinner for their families.
For our sustainable practices in the chocolate industry, we won the NW Chocolate Sustainability prize in November 2017.
VC: What is the inspiration behind naming your chocolate Askanya?
CJSS: My husband! When I was about to launch my business, we have been married for 5-6 years and we have agreed that whatever business I would do in Haiti, I should not be in Haiti (so outside of our NY home) more than 6 months per year and the business should be named like his German hometown – Aschersleben in German, Ascania in Latin or Askanya in Haitian Creole. Voilà.
VC: How has your experience/studies/degree in Engineering translated into assisting you with running a chocolate business?
CJSS: Being an industrial engineer help me setup the company production processes efficiently – I unfortunately don’t get to practice it that much (as I am not always in Ouanaminthe and we have a fantastic Head of Production who take care of the day to day operations), but when we were working on launching the company almost 6 years ago, I definitely used these skills to establish the workflow, the production output, the employees work scheduling, the material sourcing / reordering processes, etc. All in all – what are all the least amount of inputs needed to produce X chocolates at the lowest cost, while taking into account the infrastructure, legal, human resource, product sourcing challenges surrounding us. This is a real industrial engineering problem.
VC: Since Askanya is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year, how has your view on chocolate/craft chocolate making changed over the past five years? What has become more difficult in the chocolate business? What has gotten easier?
CJSS: Through these 5 years, the challenges have changed, we overcame many, but new ones have popped-up. Early on, the main challenge was making sure my grandparents old summer house transformed into a chocolate factory had the appropriate updated infrastructures (electricity / plumbing)that would sustain production. The next challenge was producing at origin in the tropics (we had a tough time with tempering, but we overcame and mastered it). Then came shipping the finished products from our small town in North-Eastern Haiti to Port-au-Prince, our first main market, before we pivoted to the USA). Now, it’s mostly having enough sales to make it worth the effort (so if you are reading this – please buy and/or recommend /introduce use to some stores that can be a great fit for our chocolates.
We are cash flow positive too, but the total original investment is still not paid back.
VC: Where would you like Askanya and the craft chocolate movement to be in another five years?
CJSS: Profitable & Better understood – I cringe, when companies who pretend to “support” minorities /small business” just want to pay $2/bar (just shipping out of Haiti cost $0.75/bar). Dude, you are not helping small businesses when you put the “bar’ so low.
I feel the Western world still need to be educated about what it takes to get your chocolate bar in your hand safely and child-labor free: farmers need to be paid enough to make it worth his/her time (if not, child labor practices will continue – let’s not be hypocritical about that); all-natural products are more expensive because they are more expensive to produce and they don’t have preservatives (preservatives are here to “preserve”, but are not entirely good for your health) – which explains their higher cost. Finally, many of the countries at origin (where cacao is found) still don’t have modern infrastructures – therefore, there’s an extra cost to producing there that people should be aware of and willing to bear.
VC: What impact would you like your chocolate to have on the world?
CJSS: I would love Askanya to be a model for other companies, located at origin and willing to take the risk to produce at origin, which also create more revenues for farmers (and a more sustainable world). These companies could be producing for the local market or for export. But this won’t happen if we don’t get people on-board, educated and willing to ditch their sugar-laded sweet for something natural, healthy, good for them. Similarly, even within Haiti, we need to teach people that being produced at home doesn’t necessarily translate to cheaper.
Thank you so much for this interview Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz!
*All photos in this interview post were provided by Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz. of Les Chocolateries Askanya.
Les Chocolateries Askanya: