In 2016, Raphael Dapaah came across an article in a financial publication. It stated that cocoa-producing African countries get just 5 percent of the annual $100 billion chocolate market, despite producing almost all of the world’s cocoa. Raphael, who was born in the UK but spent time in Ghana as a child, couldn’t get this stat out of his head.
“I remember just reading the article and at first, I was shocked because I didn’t realise how little they actually gain but then I just felt frustrated,” he says. “I had this sense of, ‘OK, now that I’m frustrated, what can actually be done? What’s the solution to this issue because that’s not acceptable at all.’”
Despite having no experience making chocolate (or, in fact, making any kind of food professionally—Raphael had been headed for a job in EU Parliament), he decided to start a chocolate business. One that would help Ghanaian cocoa farmers claim their rightful chunk of the global chocolate industry and produce a premium bean-to-bar product.
“I started looking at ways to create chocolate, researching online, and discovered how to get the process down. I started off by myself but I realised it would be great to have the family on board,” Raphael says. “This was also inspired by my brother because when I had this epiphany, he was in Ghana.”
Brother Kwaku Dapaah was in the country working for a programme that provides business training to local entrepreneurs. Raphael shared his idea, and the pair realised they had the makings of a socially conscious business that could create real impact in Ghana—not to mention a delicious product. Their sister, Afia Valerie Dapaah, joined shortly afterwards to work on brand marketing, and Dapaah Chocolates was born.
I meet Raphael and Kwaku at home in South London on a recent Friday morning. On the kitchen table in front of us are small quantities of cocoa nibs, raw cane sugar, coconut milk powder, and sea salt; as well as a Melanger—a type of stone grinder used in chocolate-making to process the nibs and combine with other ingredients.
It took a long time for the Dapaahs to figure out how to use this intimidating machine and collection of raw materials to create something that resembled a chocolate bar.
“This is an example of the simple kit that we got initially,” says Kwaku, noting that they did most of their recipe testing in the family kitchen. “We were reading blogs, watching videos, doing research, emailing people—just trying to learn the process.”
“Kwaku’s background is economics at Cambridge, mine is history and politics at Warwick, so we’re far removed from this culinary world,” Raphael laughs. “We were really propelled by a sense of determination, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone into it. It came down to this sense of duty. Rather than complain about our family who have long been cocoa farmers who have only received pennies to what should really be pounds, what can we do? What’s a solution to this?”
Despite their claim of being far removed from the culinary world, cocoa runs in the Dapaahs’ blood. Their paternal grandmother owned cocoa plantations in the Ashanti and western regions of Ghana, and their grandmother on their mother’s side inherited part of the cocoa farm owned by her husband in the 1980s. Raphael visited this farm at around the same time as reading about African producers’ pitiful share of global chocolate industry profits—an experience that helped cement in his mind why he should be in the chocolate business. For him, Dapaah Chocolates is a continuation of family legacy.
“Our paternal grandfather, as well as our paternal great-grandmother, they’ve been involved in this trade for decades,” he explains. “So, I looked at it like this: how has our generation continued this legacy? I feel like every generation should add value, so where our grandfather grew cocoa and exported it to the British and other multinational companies, the next generation should have followed suit by processing the cocoa beans to cocoa powder, then our generation could have gone the extra mile to add value to the finished product.”
He continues: “But that hasn’t happened. There’s been this vacuum, so Dapaah Chocolates was a way to bridge that gap and say, ‘Alright, it wasn’t continued how it should have been but we’re here now, we obviously have the benefit of insight and hindsight, this is what we can do now.’”
After much trial and error, including and an attempt to temper chocolate during a summer heatwave (“We tried to mitigate factors by using a fan,” Raphael remembers), the Dapaahs perfected their recipe for a milk chocolate using Ghanaian cocoa. The key, they found, was to process the ingredients in the Melanger for up to 72 hours, which produced chocolate with an addictively smooth texture.
“I used bring samples into work but not say that I made them. And then, to get people’s honest feedback, I’d gage their reaction,” Raphael says. “As much as it was important to get feedback from friends and family, I also wanted honest feedback from people who didn’t suspect it was our chocolate so we could find out if we were working with a product that was unanimously enjoyed.”
With the chocolate recipe mastered, the next step was to ensure that its components met the Dapaahs’ taste and ethical standards. While the ingredient list was small—alongside the cocoa, sugar, coconut milk, and salt, the bars contain only vanilla extract and an emulsifier—they were intent on sourcing everything from the African continent, and as much as they could from Ghana.
“The cocoa nibs are from the eastern region of Ghana,” Raphael explains, pointing to the small mound of dark brown shards on the table. “The fact that the nibs are processed in Ghana allows the farms to add value and charge a premium for the product and the farmers more because of that.”
Eventually, the Dapaahs hope to open a factory in Ghana. This would allow them to control the production of cocoa from harvest to finished product, fully realising their goal of boosting the Ghanaian chocolate industry. In the meantime, they source the cocoa nibs from a farm with a strong reward system for its workers.
Kwaku explains: “In addition to the wage, they have a system that is a profit share model that the farmers actually have or the person who owns the farm, which puts 35 percent of the profits that they gain into the co-operative into the farm.”
We move onto the sugar. “This is our organic raw sugar, we managed to source a Fairtrade company.” Raphael says.
And the cocoa butter? “It's from a women’s farm in the eastern region as well,” says Kwaku.
Raphael points to another pile of white crystals. “Next, the sea salt,” he says. “So, this is organic, natural sea salt—literally straight from the coast of Ghana. The sea salt for me has been the game changer, I always enjoyed sea salt chocolates, it brings out the flavour.”
Dapaah Chocolates launched its products online last year. The siblings did most of the promotion via social media, with tweets and Instagram posts from happy customers creating a buzz around the bars that lead their first batch to sell out in few days.
"I think our generation—'Millennials', if you will—we see all these brands and companies, whether it's Uber or Airbnb—they are disruptors," reasons Raphael. "They see an issue and change the game completely. Most consumers are looking for you to solve an issue."
The hype could also be down the fact that their products are entirely vegan, using coconut milk powder in place of dairy. It’s a savvy move. Veganism may be mainstream now, but its chocolate offering is distinctly lacking (basically, it’s Vego or nothing). Market research firm Mintel has named dairy-free chocolate as an area of the confectionary market with huge potential for growth.
“For us, it’s also a challenge that we wanted to resolve in that vegan chocolate brands typically have this reputation of not being great,” Raphael says. “When people say, ‘We didn’t even know this was vegan chocolate,’ you’ve hit a home run.”
Dapaah Chocolates bars currently come in three varieties—milk, white, and dark—but the siblings plan to develop new flavours, including a white chocolate spiked with chin chin, the crispy West African dough snack.
“We experimented with that with the white chocolate and posted it on Twitter, and that kind of went viral,” Kwaku smiles. “People were like, ‘When are you going to bring it out?’”
The Dapaahs also hope to expand their seller list, stocking the bars in specialist vegan and organic shops, as well as online. If the sell-out success of their previous drops is anything to go by, it may not be long before Vego is sharing its shelf space.
“It makes it all worthwhile,” Raphael says of the positive reception to his unexpected career turn as a chocolate entrepreneur.
I have crossed paths with many disappointing vegan chocolate bars, so I’m intrigued to try Dapaah Chocolates. The brothers send me home with a handful of bars that I vow to share with colleagues back at the office, but inevitably end up eating entirely to myself on the sofa that evening. They weren’t wrong about the texture. The chocolate is silky and delicate, with none of the chemical aftertaste that often accompanies non-dairy chocolate. I taste rich cacao, hints of coconut, and of course, sea salt—the flavours of Ghana united in a South London kitchen.
If this is what honouring a family legacy tastes like, let’s hope the Dapaahs continue for a very long time.