#Wyostrong: BIJA Chocolates Puts Wyoming Values on National Stage
BIJA Chocolate—a growing company based out of Bellingham, WA—has Fremont County roots.
Ari Lee-Newman of Lander and her husband Paul Newman started BIJA with an idea in mind: a business that helps people in developing countries.
The couple’s idea began to take shape while on their honeymoon in India four years ago. “It was during that trip that we realized there was a real, viable way we could create a company and make a product that could illuminate the human side of a food, “ said Paul.
“The first step was identifying the cooperatives we wanted to work with,” said Ari. The decision was made to work with women-owned cooperatives as much as possible. “We found that women around the world had less opportunities in work, especially in developing countries. So we knew early on that we wanted to partner with women.”
During their travels to these countries and communities, the Newmans recognized an important component in supporting these women. “We found that previously the women would be required to travel for hours to one of the larger cities for work. This disconnected them from their communities, but more importantly, it kept them from their families,” said Paul. “What we see now is a thriving business that not only provides a platform for the women, but also provides jobs for everyone in the surrounding community, regardless of gender. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness and support.”
BIJA’s chocolate is natural and certified organic. They had some delays in their launch due to the importance they placed on using suppliers who were certified organic. Instead of changing suppliers they helped the co-ops they were working with get their organic farming certification. “A problem that we ran into was that a lot of the women we were partnering with weren’t certified organic. That was important to us from a sustainability perspective,” said Ari. “We had to pause production to get them certified.”
The company currently works with co-ops in several developing countries, with the goal of including 24 co-ops by 2025.
The direct-trade model is proving effective for the co-ops BIJA works with. “We started out with the idea of sourcing fair-trade cocoa. When we were talking to the growers, we found that many were not getting paid fair-trade premiums for over three years. All the money was going to middlemen who withheld much of the profits,” said Paul. Direct-trade partnerships enable cacao growers to increase their profits substantially. BIJA typically pays $500 per metric ton over market price to ensure the farmers are making an equitable income for their hard work.”
Ari tells us, “People are resonating with the idea of supporting women and providing opportunities and making sure that people who are doing the work from farm to production are making a fair chunk of the profits.”
“Chocolate is so shareable,” said Ari. “You can have a conversation over a bar of chocolate. Generally speaking, there is so much exploitation going on in the cacao industry. We are working to change that. So, when you buy BIJA, you can feel confident that the people that are doing the work are being paid well.” BIJA, at its core, is about the people. “We highlight our partners on the packaging, so people can see the actual person behind the beans. Making that human connection is important.”
This small business has already garnered national attention, including a feature segment on The Today Show.
Ari credits her small town upbringing for both the business model and for her determination. “I believe we have a responsibility to our neighbors. It comes from growing up in a small community where people take care of each other,” she said. “There’s something really special about that.”
BIJA is currently sold in seven states, including Wyoming. Their chocolate is available at Wild Iris and Mr. D’s in Lander, and on Amazon.