Planet A raises $15.4m for climate-friendly cocoa alternative
Munich-based foodtech Planet A has raised a $15.4m Series A round led by World Fund, to bring its climate-friendly cocoa alternative to more customers. The company uses a proprietary fermentation process to turn locally sourced ingredients like oats and sunflower seeds into its patented “ChoViva” product — a cocoa alternative that can be used to make chocolate, but doesn’t actually contain any cocoa beans.
A world of pure imagination
Cocoa beans can only grow in specific climates, which are now under risk. Ghana, one of the world’s major producers of cocoa, lost 1.4m hectares of tree cover through deforestation from 2000 to 2021, according to Global Forest Watch; cocoa beans have to be grown under tree shade, and the country is the world’s second biggest producer of the ingredient. Farmers in the Ivory Coast — which is the world’s largest producer of cocoa — stopped contract sales for the 2023 – 2024 season last year, due to concerns over declining supply as a result of wet weather conditions. According to Trading Economics, the price of cocoa has risen to its highest level in over 46 years. As a result, chocolate makers are in search of a cheaper alternative that can mimic the taste — and cofounder Sara Marquart says that ChoViva costs less than many sources of traditional cocoa. The company currently has partnerships with chocolatier Lindt, which uses ChoViva in its new vegan range, and flight provider Lufthansa.
Human and environmental impact
The cocoa industry isn’t just a victim of climate change, it’s also a perpetrator of the climate change it falls victim to: the World Wildlife Fund says that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming, and chocolatier Cocoa Runners estimates that one 100g bar of mass-produced chocolate uses between 1.5 – 2k litres of water.
By using locally sourced ingredients, Planet A aims to circumvent the issues associated with the traditional chocolate industry, but also reduce its footprint: the company says that its process emits 90% less CO2 than traditional cocoa. Marquart estimates that if they managed to replace cocoa in just 5% of current chocolate production, the CO2 saved would be equivalent to the emissions created by two million cars. Alongside the decline in suitable land, there are growing ethical concerns around the industry, which typically relies on third-world labourers — and, in some alleged cases, child slavery — to harvest beans.
With these problems in mind, Marquart and her cofounder and brother Max decided they would create a “second pillar to the existing chocolate supply chain, by using something other than cocoa”, she says. They tested over 100 ingredients that could serve as alternatives to cocoa beans, and discovered that the majority of the chocolate taste that consumers recognise comes from the fermentation, roasting and added ingredients process, rather than the beans themselves. The company now processes oats and sunflower seeds sourced from European locations like Germany and the Nordics in a way that is “pretty much 1:1 identical to what happens to cocoa”, Marquart says. The only difference is that cocoa beans are “wild fermented”, where farmers pile the beans on the ground and leave them covered with banana leaves. Planet A ferments its ingredients in a controlled facility more akin to a beer-brewing facility where the fermentation environment can be adjusted. The biggest problem facing the company right now, she says, is meeting the demand for its product. The company has already used some of its funding to scale up production in its factory, and has plans to expand outside of its current markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland to reach chocolatiers in the UK and US. Though cocoa is the current focus, Sara says that Planet A won’t stop there. “We don’t see ourselves as a chocolate company; we are an ingredients provider,” Marquart says. The next ingredient on the list is palm oil, which is responsible for mass deforestation, emissions caused by burning to clear land and the destruction of peat forests, which act as carbon sinks and remove more CO2 than they emit.