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'Obroni & the Chocolate Factory': One Milwaukee Entrepreneur's Sweet Case for Globalization

Cacao beans in Ghana, West Africa.

Just over a quarter-century ago, Milwaukee native Steve Wallace started Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company.  It is not one of the huge players on the scene, nor is it a small boutique that makes truffles.  Its greater significance is that it makes chocolate bars in the African nation of Ghana, where the cocoa beans are grown.

The 26-year journey has not always been easy or straightforward, and in fact started with a journey Wallace took to Ghana as a high school exchange student. He chronicles that and the path that led to the creation of his chocolate company in a memoir, called Obroni and the Chocolate Factory: An Unlikely Story of Globalization and Ghana's First Gourmet Chocolate Bar.

"People were asking about (my story), and I think on some sort of deep psychological level there were things I needed to get off my chest and things I wanted to talk about," Wallace explains. "I felt very privileged that I'd been on this journey. I was part of Ghana back when it was under military dictatorships, and now Ghana is one of the longest lasting and most stable democracies on the African continent."

Credit Skyhorse Publishing
Skyhorse Publishing

Although Wallace spent time in Ghana during high school, he returned to Milwaukee, became a lawyer and worked for his family garment business. However, he couldn't shake his connection to Ghana - he loved it and he wanted to go back, but with a greater purpose.

According to Wallace, Ghana had four main raw materials he could work with: gold, diamonds, bauxite, and cacao. Ghana is known for growing the finest cocoa in the world and Wallace grew up in a family that loved to cook, so his choice was clear. "For me, it wasn't so much about chocolate, but cocoa became the vehicle that brought me back to Ghana."

"If I didn't start this (when I was 29), I was quite certain that I would regret it when I was 80," he says. "And the only thing I knew for sure is I didn't want to be 80 years-old, look back and say, 'I missed the moment.'"

Omanhene has proven itself one of the most successful joint ventures between the U.S. and Ghana, despite the initial difficulties and government ownership of processing plants Wallace encountered. "The government set up this vertical cocoa monopoly really to keep outsiders out," he explains. "I was an outsider and I had to find my way in."

One of the reasons Wallace  wrote Obroni and the Chocolate Factory, he says, was to talk about globalism in a richer and more nuanced sense. "Right now, globalism has become shorthand for economic exploitation...(and) I think that truncating of the conversation doesn't do us any favors."

"Over the long term, international trade creates wealth. So how do we begin in this country to articulate the merits of globalism, how can it be done right, how can it actually create value, and not just take jobs from one country and give them to another. So I looked at this as a way of what can Wisconsin do?"

Wallace notes that for all the times he became frustrated with issues - such as business growth, "there were just some wonderful moments on the journey that I wanted to share and it was really like enjoying a fine piece of chocolate."

Steve Wallace will talk about his book, Obroni and the Chocolate Factory, November 21 at Boswell Book Company.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.