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A Champion for Chocolate: How One Student’s Winning Boot Camp Project Is Helping to Advance a Vital African Industry

Written by Jennifer Bangoura on Aug 10, 2021

Related content: Marketing, Data For Good, Outcomes

Did you know that over 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa? I certainly didn’t—at least not until I hosted 2U’s annual Next Level Contest, an online pitch competition that offers boot camp graduates from universities across the nation the opportunity to present their “next level” ideas related to fields like coding, data, and UX/UI.

This year’s grand prize went to Georgia Tech Digital Marketing Boot Camp student Jonathan Ayimambenwe for Kakao Mundo, his data-fueled social marketing platform that supports African cocoa farmers by tracing their product’s life cycle from “farm to bar.” As Jonathan shared with me, the public, and the noteworthy judges panel in his winning presentation, that surprising statistic belies some of the harsh realities of the continent’s cocoa industry, which Jonathan is passionately working to change.

Originally from Gabon on Africa’s west coast, Jonathan and his brother Sebastien got started in the business of chocolate 12 years ago. Soon after graduating from the University of Poitiers in France with degrees in Biology and Business Administration, respectively, they returned to Gabon—where their grandparents are farmers—to launch their entrepreneurial dreams with a small chocolate “factory” of their own. However, they quickly experienced what most cocoa farmers in Africa face: little or no access to the right equipment, the rigors of physical labor, the challenges of maintaining the quality and responsible processing of their product, and perhaps most critically, a bleak return on investment.

“We began working with other small cocoa farmers to help keep fair trade, fair prices, and positive social impact going within the industry,” Jonathan says. “Through that process, we collected a ton of data on our farming partners, the government, and how things work. That model seemed to stick for us, so we thought, why not take it to the next level and see how we can use our education and the data and technology somehow to go global, so that we can push the industry to be even more transparent and help even more African farmers?”

That’s how Kakao Mundo was born.

One example of an African cocoa farm where children and whole families comprise most of the field labor

From Farm to Bar to Boot Camp

Flash forward to earlier this year when Jonathan enrolled in the Georgia Tech Digital Marketing Boot Camp powered by 2U. In a short and intensive 18 weeks, he acquired enough knowledge to not only build a comprehensive digital marketing strategy for Kakao Mundo, but also turn that strategy into a visually rich online pitch for our Next Level Contest.

Competing with other boot camp graduates who presented their own creative, tech-enabled solutions to real-world problems, Jonathan impressed a judges panel culled from top tech companies including Google, IBM, Salesforce, Intel, and Netflix. As the winner, he now enjoys 10 hours of mentorship from tech and venture capital professionals, free enrollment in a 2U-powered short course of his choice, and continued support from the 2U community.

As the associate dean for academic programs at Georgia Tech Professional Education, Nisha Botchwey was equally impressed and proud of Jonathan.

“It has been fantastic to see Georgia Tech students as finalists in this program for two years running, and even more to see Jonathan honored as the winner,” says Botchwey. “His project exemplified the Georgia Tech mission of using technology to advance the human condition and underscores the impact high-quality, industry-relevant professional education can make—on both one professionally and the community at-large.”

The map in Jonathan's winning presentation showing the percentages of chocolate sourcing vs. consumption around the world

Ready for His Close-Up

The Next Level Contest was just the beginning for Jonathan. Less than a week after he won, Jonathan was already preparing his next intel mission: grounding himself in El Paso to meet with representatives from Mexico’s cocoa farming industry and learn more about their best practices—a true student of the world! That’s where we caught up with Jonathan to learn even more about his project and the digital marketing skills he used to create it, and how he hopes Kakao Mundo will help African cocoa farmers in the months and years to come.

What compelled you to take the Georgia Tech Boot Camp in Digital Marketing?

Jonathan Ayimambenwe (JA): Through my biology training, I already had an understanding of chocolate processing from a scientific perspective, but I felt I needed to learn more about the business from a marketing point of view, in order to really kick things into gear. I wanted to get the best crash-course education I could in digital marketing because I literally knew zero about it. Since I live in Atlanta now, I looked at the Georgia Tech boot camp and it sounded like a solid fit.

How did your learnings in the boot camp help you develop Kakao Mundo’s marketing plan, which was essentially your Next Level Contest presentation?

JA: For one, I think what I learned helped me simplify my presentation and communicate it better to people who may not be aware of Africa’s cocoa farming issues. Another big takeaway was how to design a landing page generator, so that consumers who are eating an African company’s chocolate can scan a QR code on the packaging with their phone and be taken to a landing page that’s branded with the company’s look and feel and information. Behind all of that is this wealth of interconnected data that allows them to learn more about the industry overall, the chocolate they’re eating and where and how it’s sourced, and how they can help support different social and environmental impact projects that will make a real difference in farmers’ livelihoods. Knowing how to create these customized landing pages in an automated way for all of our farming partners is a game-changer.

Before the boot camp, I didn’t know what to do with all the farmer data we had collected—as far as presenting it to the end customers and making sure it’s appealing to them through the right interface and on the right platforms. I have a much better sense now of the “marketing funnel” to know how and when to reach out to customers at the right time in their journey. And it’s great knowing how to read and interpret data in Google Analytics to figure out where to put more of our efforts and what to emphasize more. When I heard our instructor going in-depth into all the different strategies, explaining why this is done and how that is done and how to make sure you’re spending your money wisely, it opened up a whole new mindset and I was blown away.

Kakao Mundo’s platform pulls data directly from farmers and other sources to create detailed chocolate tasting profiles across various fields and regions

Where do you plan to take your project from here, and what kind of impact do you hope it has?

JA: We’re starting Kakao Mundo in areas of Gabon where there may not be as many of those enormous farming challenges, because it’s still a pilot and a prototype and it wouldn’t be business-smart for us to begin with “worst-case scenario.” We’ll be working with CAISTAB, a government agency in Gabon, and several farming cooperatives to execute our mobile commerce plan with around 50 families, for starters.

At the same time, we’ll be building a physical harvest center where most of the manipulation of the cocoa—the actions that are currently done in the fields—can be done more efficiently and safely for the farmers. Right now, there are a lot of kids and whole families harvesting the beans directly, so automation and mechanization will help alleviate that labor issue. This is where we hope some of our crowdfunding projects will come into play, so that we can purchase the quality equipment we need.

We hope to have the first batches of chocolate coming out of this new process by the end of the year. We also have a European production plant in the works to be able to expand our more responsibly sourced, African artisan chocolate into those markets. We’re really trying to build up that social impact profile, and if we can produce high-quality chocolate and market and sell it through fair trade, then it’s a win-win for everyone.

Prototypes of the Kakao Mundo mobile platform showing the details of an African cocoa farm's landing page, where consumers can vote on social and environmental projects to fund with their chocolate purchase

What would you tell others considering or already in 2U-powered programs about the value of entering the Next Level Contest, whether they win or not?

JA: Well, if you win, definitely take advantage of the mentorship connections you get with tech professionals as part of the prize package. Through 2U, I was just put in touch with someone from IBM and I’m using their advice to help further enrich our solutions with Kakao Mundo and maybe even find some more investors. But I also know there are several similar opportunities with big tech companies through 2U’s Career Engagement Network that students and graduates can explore.

If you're an entrepreneur, the contest is a great way to put your business idea and your project out there and get challenged on your solution, because at the end of the day, the audience that wants to hear from you is probably going to be your market. It’s important to remain open to all their feedback and to learn from everyone you can. I never miss an opportunity to do that.

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