Patrick Tcheunou was driving one day in 2015 when he heard an unsettling radio news story that inspired him to take bold action halfway around the globe. The world would likely face a chocolate shortage in the near future because producers can’t keep up with demand, the reporter said.
Patrick, who grew up visiting his grandfather’s coffee farm in his home country of Cameroon, couldn’t stomach the idea that one of his favorite foods might soon be in short supply. He had already been brainstorming business ideas with his wife Mara when he heard that news story, so they talked it over, did some research, and decided that running a sustainable, ethical cacao farm and making chocolate from the harvest should be their life’s work. “I thought, ‘Hey, I grew up around farming and I know the problems, maybe this could be an area where we can have an impact and be part of the effort to solve that issue,” says Patrick, who is 41.
And so, later that year, with help from Patrick’s father and brother in Cameroon, the Denver-based husband-and-wife team bought a remote, 50-acre farm in the country’s Centre Region. Five years later, the Tcheunous harvested their first cacao beans and began making three flavors of artisan dark chocolate bark: plantain crisp (made with plantains also grown on the farm), coconut crisp, and ground roasted coffee. Patrick, a chemical engineer by training, is the company’s chief chocolate maker, expertly blending just five natural ingredients to achieve the perfect flavor and consistency. All three of their barks are made from the aromatic and antioxidant-rich Trinitario cacao variety.
In August 2020, the couple began selling their seed-to-chocolate products in more than 50 independent coffee shops, cheese stores, liquor stores, and boutiques throughout the Centennial State, as well as at farmers’ markets and on their website. Though launching during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging—they couldn’t give out samples at farmers’ markets and retailers were experiencing slow business themselves—it also gave the couple more time and energy to dedicate to the new business. “Our vision is a world where chocolate works for not only the customers but the employees of our company, the farmers in Cameroon that grow the cacao, our local vendors in Colorado, and, in general, the world that grows cacao and consumes chocolate,” says Mara, 44, who also works as a mental health counselor.
Mara and Patrick named their company Bibamba, which means “patch” in Lingala, the language of nearby Congo. There, people use “bibamba” as slang for “snack”—a bite of food to patch the time between meals. It was also one of Patrick’s nicknames growing up, and it reflects their goal of uniting Cameroonian and American cultures.
Since the Tcheunous primarily run their business from Colorado (Patrick typically visits the farm once a year for several weeks at a time), they rely on a dedicated team of Cameroonian farmers to tend to the cacao trees, harvest the pods, and extract the beans. The farmers also ferment, dry, and sort the beans, then prepare them for sea shipping to Colorado. When they decided to start their farm, the Tcheunous were adamant about paying their farmers fair, competitive wages and providing them with healthcare, food, and drinking water. They also created an internship program to help local Cameroonian students learn about sustainable farming methods, with an overarching goal of improving agriculture throughout the region.
They also vowed never to use child labor, a practice that is illegal in Cameroon but still occurs on some cacao farms. “With a lot of the chocolate products that are available, there’s a reason why they’re inexpensive,” says Mara. “It’s a heartbreaking part of the industry, and so that’s really something we want to educate people on.”
The couple has also worked to make the farm as environmentally friendly as possible. They hired an agronomist to help them initially prepare the land for farming and planted thousands of plantain, mango, and avocado trees to help increase biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, help with pest control, and provide shade for the cacao trees. Bibamba uses organic manure and doesn’t use any chemicals.
While running an ethical, sustainable cacao farm has required a huge investment of time and money, the Tcheunous say they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re happy to be able to show their two young sons—Julien, 7, and Isaac, 5—the value of hard work and the satisfaction that comes from working on something they’re passionate about. “We get to make the decisions and run a company the way that we want to and uphold the values we care about,” Mara says. “We can invest in what matters to us and not water it down.”