Sometimes, the radio can change the direction of your life.
Patrick Tcheunou was on a work trip nearly ten years ago when he happened to hear a report on NPR about the uncertain future of cocoa production in the world. A shortage of cocoa beans would mean less chocolate—and to this native of Cameroon, that was a serious issue. It didn’t take him long to pitch an ambitious idea to his wife, Mara.
“I had grown up with cocoa in Cameroon, and I was aware of bad practices in the cocoa industry,” Patrick says. “I said to Mara, ‘How about we start our own cocoa farm? We can help with the shortage, and we can show that we can do it better.’”
Mara had grown accustomed to hearing many ideas for new businesses from her husband, who, she says, “has a strong entrepreneurial streak.”
“To the other ideas, I had said, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” she says, with a laugh. “But I can remember thinking this idea was pretty interesting.”
By the next morning, Patrick was on the phone with his family in Cameroon. They loved the idea because they had a background in agriculture. They also saw the venture as an opportunity to see more of Patrick.
And that is how “Bibamba” was born, although a decade ago Mara and Patrick had no intention of becoming award-winning artisanal chocolate producers. They planned to create a business-to-business venture, growing the cacao beans and selling their product. All that changed the very same week their first major shipment of beans arrived in the U.S.
‘Is it good?’
When Mara and Patrick met in 2012, he was working as a chemical engineer. She was—and continues to be—a psychotherapist. As they like to point out, they had no background in building or running a small business, especially one that also involves running a farm more than 7,000 miles away. What they did have was the drive to change their world.
“We believe our chocolate should work for everyone,” says Patrick. “It should work not only for us as the owners, but also for the community where we grow the beans, our employees on the farm, and of course, for our customers.”
“To me, tikkun olam guides the work we are doing,” Mara adds. “It’s in my mind a lot of time. This is bigger than just making chocolate because it’s about making the world a better place.”
For Patrick and Mara, building the business has been an exercise in trial and error. But they always had a clear vision of what they wanted to create on the 56-acre farm they purchased in Cameroon. They would farm with an eye on best practices for the local environment, researching rainfall so they could produce cocoa beans without irrigation. They would employ local people and pay them well. They would never use child labor. They would offer training opportunities for young people, and they would share what they learned about growing cocoa, plantains, mangos, and avocados with the local community to help them grow their own food.
“Patrick had a rich science background,” Mara says. “That was really important.”
They began with a nursery and planted foot-tall cocoa saplings in the ground in 2016, but it would be four years before they had their first major crop. During that time, they learned all aspects of the business: hiring professionals to handle logistics and transport, learning how to import, dealing with the FDA, and building all-important connections with the businesses they hoped would buy their beans.
They also received some small shipments of the beans.
“We wanted to see what the heck we were growing,” says Mara. “Is it good?”
“The professional expert in the industry and the people who were teaching us chocolate-making gave our chocolate very high marks and great feedback,” Mara adds. “I remember thinking, ‘Thank goodness it is good!’ We put the seeds in soil, and now we were getting accolades and reassurance from experts. We felt reassured we were on to something.”
The first major shipment of beans, the culmination of more than five years of work arrived from Cameroon at the beginning of March 2020—at the very same time the COVID-19 pandemic began making headlines around the world.
“The world literally shut down,” Mara recalls. “We had invested so much time and money, and now the beans were stuck sitting in Customs in Chicago.”
“Even the people we had lined up to buy were not responding,” Patrick adds. “To me, this was an opportunity to make our own chocolate.”
Out of adversity—a pandemic—Bibamba was born.
‘People were buying it!’
While the country shut down during the early months of COVID, Patrick started making chocolate in the Tcheunou basement. Together, the couple hustled to develop a brand, packaging, and design.
The word “Bibamba” is Lingala, a Congolese language, and it literally means “patch,” like the patch that covers a hole in your clothes. Its slang usage means a “snack,” like the snack that covers you between breakfast and lunch. The Bibamba logo shows three interlocking circles representing cocoa beans, with the middle bean symbolizing the snack that carries you from your first meal to your third.
Patrick worked for months to develop a recipe that fit his vision—dark chocolate, simple, nutritious. His neighbors became his test kitchen and first reviewers.
“Patrick made so many samples until we landed on the first product,” Mara says. “He used this scientific approach handing out multiple different samples and then collecting feedback.”
August 20, 2020, five months after they had to completely revamp their business plan, Mara and Patrick packed the car with their sons Isaac and Julien, a newly-purchased tent, and bins of their first official product, “Jungle Crunch.”
“We set up a booth at the Farmers Market in Cherry Creek,” Mara says. “It was so bare bones, but people were buying it!”
‘What has not yet been done with chocolate?’
Since that August, Bibamba has seen a number of milestones.
The product became available at the first retail store, Ruby’s Market on South Pearl. Since then, Bibamba has expanded beyond Jungle Crunch to multiple options. It can now be found at dozens of locations around Colorado. It can also be bought online.
The business has outgrown its shared kitchen and moved into a private commercial kitchen. In another milestone, Patrick left full-time work to devote his energies to the business.
“This kid does not sit still,” Mara says.
“It’s hard to sit still when you know you have things to do,” Patrick responds.
Bibamba chocolate has also become very popular with the Jewish Explorers program at JEWISHcolorado since it’s a much-enjoyed gift that the Tcheunou family brings for all the teachers. Jewish Explorers teaches preschool and elementary school-age children and their families about Jewish values, culture, traditions, and holidays. Mara has also taken the opportunity to educate other Jewish Explorers families about the farm in Cameroon and the process of making chocolate. Bibamba may even be on a future Jewish Explorers holiday dinner menu, and you can also watch for Bibamba at Jewish festivals.
In early 2023, Patrick left for a month in Cameroon, his first trip home since before COVID struck in 2020.
“He will be able to bring them chocolate to taste,” Mara says. “They have not yet tasted what they have grown!”
Patrick is always thinking about the future, what product will come next. “You go out and eat and you get new ideas,” he says. “I always wonder, ‘What has not yet been done with chocolate?’”
Mara and Patrick acknowledge that they have had an immense amount of family support on both sides, without which they could not have succeeded. And they are truly grateful to their customers, many of whom take the time to write them notes and emails.
“The reviews, the personal emails are so heartfelt,” Mara says. “That people take the time to do that just makes my day. The more successful we get, the more it extends the learning curve. That’s fine with me because I think we are doing an amazing job.”