Poking the establishment for a living

Lars Gierveld is a born troublemaker in the best sense of the word. His entire career has been a continuous quest of poking the establishment wherever something seemed off. From angering citrus farmers in Florida to becoming psychic of the month thus exposing a network of frauds in the television program Rambam. It’s in his nature to question things. But what good is shouting at something without any idea on how to fix it? So, when Nestle asked him to research the state of their cocoa farmers, he didn’t return with just a report. He came back with a plan.

Lars, how does a reporter become an entrepreneur?

I never just wanted to be a reporter. That’s why during my studies, I made sure to fully grasp the business, journalistic and sociological aspects of the medium. It might seem far off, but that triangle has always been my foundation. After college I started a business in which we consulted on various matters like the flow of information in healthcare. Ways it could improve, be more accessible, stuff like that. That was more the business and entrepreneurial side. Then I decided I wanted to create, so I joined the television show RamBam. I did that for almost 60 episodes. We did some great stuff, but after a while it was time to move on. I missed the lasting impact. That’s the thing with television. You make it, it airs and it sticks or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

That’s when Nestle came in. How did that come about?

We had a very different plan coming in. We wanted to do a miniseries and wondered if they were interested, but then Nestle started talking about their cocoa plan. Immediately we pumped the brakes. My partner Jochem (Pinksteren) and I are from public television. A big company hiring reporters sounds like an attempt to greenwash, so naturally we were skeptic. They assured us to be genuine with their intentions, but we were still worried. Our reputation was at stake in terms of independency. Talks continued all the way to upper management and they assured us complete independence. That’s when we turned it around and made some conditions of our own. We turned to the Dutch association of journalists and they helped us formulate an ironclad contract which guaranteed our independence. It stated Nestle was not allowed to get involved in our content and we’re free to show and tell whatever we might find. In return we’d always present them with a chance for a counter argument. We did butt heads at first, PR obviously favours the positive while a reporter tends to show the negative, but in the end we figured it out.

Then you were off to Ghana. How did you start?

We started from scratch. Nestle helped us out a lot in the Netherlands. They have great expertise involving the markets and distribution for which I’m very grateful, but in Ghana we were on our own. Our press visas were on Nestle’s name and mentioning them opened doors, but we created our network ourselves. Through ETG/Beyond Beans (Cocoanect), we found a local network called Cocoa merchants. Through them we hired Ebenezer for this project. He led us to Ibrahim and his farmers.

And that’s where you discovered a strangely fruity drink.

If you look at their circumstances it all seems illogical. The minimum of a sustainable income in Africa is two euros a day, yet they only make one. Giving them one euro more isn’t going to hurt anyone in the chocolate chain. It doesn’t make sense. Then I saw all that juice just spilling away. Another illogical thing. That’s when we decided to find a way to sell this juice in Holland. We found a bottling factory, logistics, everything.

What was that like?

Strange because suddenly I wasn’t just a reporter, I was trying to start a business. I found myself negotiating about prices with farmers. I am thankful however, that we did this with the network we had built ourselves; Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), ETG/Beyond Beans, WUR, McKinsey, IPSOS, Innofest, Cocoamerchants, KNUST (University of Kumasi) etc. It gave us an independence and a network of which I know every single person. Luckily, I have Ebenezer to guide me through cultural differences, because it gets difficult. Like we had a batch coming in, and they assured me it was in good condition. But when it came in, it was unusable even though I had a report in my hand which stated it’s good. But that’s the way it goes in Ghana.

How far are we from ordering a bottle of Kumasi juice?

Corona slowed us down a bit concerning permits, but we’re aiming to be in stores by the end of the year. We’ve formalized the consortium with KIT, Solidaridad, ETG/Beyond Beans, and Cocoamerchants who committed to expand the project the next two years. RVO (Dutch government) is partly financing and helping us the next two years. Nestlé did commit to help our farmers, should they need equipment to make the juice. The documentary had great responses so there’s already a demand. Now all we need is the juice and facilities to scale up.

And is Lars Gierveld now a fulltime social entrepreneur or is this a one-time thing?

Well, I’ve committed myself to this project, which allowed me to kick and create. As a reporter we’ve got five shows coming out at the end of the year about child labour, deforestation and more. I might scale back on the other time-consuming projects now that I am committed to Kumasi Juice. But it’s not like I can only do one and have to give up the other. Who knows what follows, but for now I’m all about Kumasi.

The documentary ‘mede mogelijk gemaakt’ by Lars Gierveld can be seen on Videoland and on Kumasi-juice.nl. Make sure to follow his progress on chocoproef.nl, Facebook or Instagram and we’ll make sure to let you know when you can get your hands on a bottle of strangely fruity Kumasi juice.