Surprisingly, Steven Wallace's inspiration for the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company didn't stem from a long love affair with chocolate. It stemmed instead from a love affair with Ghana, which also happens to grow what's been called the finest cocoa in the world.
As a 16-year-old in 1978, Wallace spent a summer in Ghana as foreign exchange student with his host father, his three wives and their 21 children.
"I was captivated by the country and the Ghanaians," says Wallace. "My summer was not an easy one but I was fascinated by the extended family structure, the generosity of many Ghanaians and the beauty of the country itself."
After returning to the States, he knew he wanted to go back to Africa -- he just needed a reason. Convinced that if Ghana grows the "world's finest cocoa," it, too, could produce the world's finest chocolate. Wallace had found his calling.
"I simply wanted an excuse to go back and I thought starting my own business would be a vehicle to allow me to work and spend time with purpose in Ghana."
By 1991, he had founded Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company and created for himself personal ties to the country that inspired him. For generations, European and American chocolatiers have bought cocoa beans from Ghana and exported them to their factories throughout the world. Now, though his offices are here in Milwaukee, his company is the first to produce world class chocolate entirely in Ghana.
"I knew I wanted to produce in-country. This not only creates more jobs in the country, but also makes for better chocolate. When the product travels from country to country, time passes and it loses it magic. It's just not as fresh."
Wallace founded Omanhene - which is the Twi word for the traditional king or chief, the repository of ethical and moral authority in Ghana -- on Fair Trade principles.
"My intention was to pay the farmers whatever they needed," he says. "For me, it isn't about commoditizing, and it's not about getting the best deal on beans."
Yet, since cocoa is a commodity crop, farm incomes in Ghana are subject to world cocoa price inflections. In the past, Ghanaian cocoa farmers abandoned their farms when world cocoa prices stagnated. Wallace says that he created his company to produce value-added gourmet chocolate specifically tailored to export markets, resulting in enhanced foreign exchange revenues for Ghana.
Proving to be one of the most successful and creative ventures between the U.S. and Ghana, the sale of Omanhene chocolate is resulting in higher revenues and consequently higher and more stable wages for both the chocolate factory workers and for local cocoa farmers.
Plus, it's producing some extraordinary chocolate and giving Wallace reason to return to the country he loves.
"I've been there twice this year, and this is typical," he says. "I visit the cocoa farms, meet with the government officials, undertake new product development and oversee factory operations."
In Milwaukee, you can buy Omanhene products, including award-winning dark milk chocolate and hot cocoa mix, at Alterra Coffee Roasters, Outpost Natural Foods, Sendik's and Pick'n Save.
Omanhene's Web site is omanhene.com.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”