From Lagom #4

Trading Places

Powered by the wind and aided by the latest information technology, New Dawn Traders take cargo shipping back to its roots, as founder Alexandra Geldenhuys explains, by transporting rum and chocolate around the world in a traditional sail ship.

Words Samantha Stocks

Photographs Sophia Schorr-Kon, Tom Powell, Daniel Daki Spaki

New Dawn Traders is a business that seems to joyously go against every notion of what you might expect a business today should be, where time is money and speed is required in order to create a more efficient output and maximise financial return. New Dawn Traders turns that idea on its head.

Transporting cocoa and rum across the Atlantic on a wind-powered tall ship certainly doesn’t seem like the most efficient means to transport cargo; why not transport it by plane? Or a large engine-powered cargo ship? It was a notion that had us intrigued.

I met with Alexandra Geldenhuys, founder of New Dawn Traders, in Bristol, which seemed appropriate, given the city’s rich maritime history, and its lively but less-than-proud past embedded in the trade triangle. I half expected to be unable to meet her, imagining that she would be somewhere across the Sargasso Sea. The ship — Tres Hombres — she tells me, is currently on its way to the Caribbean. 

“Darren, a fellow New Dawn Trader, is on the ship now,” she says. “He’s just joined the crew in the Canaries to cross over the Atlantic, and he’s going to spend a bit of time in the Caribbean scouting for new cargo.” 

Although Alex’s heart is in sailing, sustaining a business and getting it off the ground isn’t that easy to do when you’re not on solid ground. She sighs and smiles with a look of mild exhaustion when she tells me that she’s been busy sticking labels on the new line of chocolate bars that they’re just about to launch, alongside their own brand of rum, for which they’re working with a local ceramist to make bespoke bottles. “We bottle our rum in Cornwall, and make our chocolate there with local chocolatier Chocolarder,” she says, and explains that she’ll soon be relocating to Cornwall: “Cornwall has an incredible maritime history that goes even further back than the age of discovery, and it has quite a rebellious streak, so I’m really excited about embedding New Dawn Traders there.”

I have, at times, compromised my ideas in order to fit into something that felt more ‘correct’ in terms of the way we think about getting success and how, but every time that’s happened, I failed myself somehow.

I’m curious to know how New Dawn Traders — which itself has a rebellious streak — came to be. The journey, Alex told me, begins with an idea, and by slowly questioning everything. “I have, at times, compromised my ideas in order to fit into something that felt more ‘correct’ in terms of the way we think about getting success and how,” she explains. “But every time that’s happened, I failed myself somehow.”

The journey to New Dawn Traders, I learn, wasn’t always smooth sailing, and began as a thought pro- cess that started, unexpectedly, out of Alex’s degree in fashion design, which she earned at Brighton University. “I both loved and hated it,” she confesses. “At that time there wasn’t much integration of ethical thinking into design practice, and that really jarred with me.”

Her reaction to this, she explains, was that she left university feeling that she wanted to get as far away from civilisation as possible, and left with a dream to go sailing to see South America, and spend some time working more closely to wilderness. To most this would be just a pipe-dream, but things fell into place for Alex when she had a serendipitous conversation with a friend, who told her of someone he knew who was working in Brazil on a cocoa plantation in the rainforest. 

“I sailed for two months, then went to Brazil and found my way to the farm, Fazenda Pura Vida [Pure Life], where I lived on and off for three years, helping to rehabilitate the plantation and build good relationships with the locals in order to work towards a sustainable community. It’s there that we decided that the ultimate thing to do would be to sail the beans back to Europe on a sailing boat, closing the loop and taking out the carbon footprint from flying there and back. I had found my calling.”

I expected that New Dawn Traders arose relatively quickly from this idea that began at the farm, but in fact the process towards its founding was to take a few more years, and more soul-searching.

“Running a farm in rural Brazil,” she explains, “and looking for a ship to carry our cargo on with very limited resources became overwhelming. Back then people thought we were totally mad.” So she left the farm for England, where she returned to working in the festival industry for a few years before she began to question her decision more thoroughly. “I had the best job in the world working on these events, with close friends doing really fun things,” she recalls, “but I realised that I needed to get back to doing what I was truly passionate about, and try to find a ship.”

The beauty of these ships is that it allows that direct relationship all along the supply chain. By working with these people, they become your network of friends.

Tres Hombres was the outcome of the search: a beautiful, engine-less sailing ship from the pioneering Dutch company Fairtransport. In 2013 Alex travelled with the ship for eight months as cook, sailing across the Atlantic and back on a mission to pick up rum and cocoa beans from the Caribbean. New Dawn Traders now imports their own rum and cocoa beans with the ship, as well as being brokers for Tres Hombres Rum. “More than just the products, New Dawn Traders promotes this new and growing industry for sail-shipped cargo.”

“I recently made the first sale of our new rum to a bar in London, the East London Liquor Company,” Alex tells me. “They distil their own gin, rum, and vodka, as well as importing quality handcrafted spirits. As their ethos is very much in line with ours, they didn’t need much persuasion — they already understood what we’re doing. That was a great feeling.”

Although New Dawn Traders’ rum and chocolate stand alone as quality products, what really sets them apart is their story. Transported from exotic locations to British shores with practically zero carbon emissions, when you hold a New Dawn Traders bottle of rum or a bar of their fair-trade chocolate in your hand, you can’t help but wonder about the journey it’s been on, and admire the strong set of values that it stands for.

But it’s not a concept that everyone can easily (pardon the pun) get on board with. I ask Alex whether she’s found it a struggle to find clients who share their ethics. “I find it can be challenging if people don’t have a sensitivity for why you’re doing what you’re doing and are only interested in price,” she admits. “Although the emission-free shipping doesn’t add that much to the final cost, the quality of the ingredients and fair cost of production across the supply chain do make for a higher price tag.” 

Instead, New Dawn Traders seek out other like-minded businesses who share their core values. “I find that people who share the same values are much more open and happy to share knowledge and support,” she explains. “It’s possible to have a way of thinking about business that’s focused on working with others as allies rather than working against the competition. Like most people, I was born into that frame of mind, and I find that I’m still having to peel away my own fears and doubts. But it doesn’t have to be that way; it’s completely our own choice.”

It’s possible to have a way of thinking about business that’s focused on working with others as allies rather than working against the competition.

Indeed, it seems that a significant part of New Dawn Traders’ business model is geared toward creating a network of ‘allies’, where relationships are on a personal level. “I know all the farmers growing the cocoa beans in Brazil personally,” Alex explains. “I know what they sing when they go harvesting. I really look forward to the day we can pick up these beans with a sailing ship.”

“The beauty of these ships,” she continues, “is that it allows that direct relationship all along the supply chain. By working with these people, they become your network of friends.”

I’m intrigued by how the schedule of a wind- powered ship must work with the pressure of transporting cargo to clients in the UK. I ask Alex whether managing tight schedules is viable with conditions at sea being so unpredictable. Tres Hombres, she explains, is able to do a round-trip in about six months. With a combination of good seamanship and a well- planned route, the ship is often on time, if not ahead of schedule, although she admits that occasionally even with the best organisation, things don’t always go to plan: “On one of the first voyages, the crew spent 45 days stuck at sea because there was no wind,” she confesses. “But thanks to today’s technology, you can now get pretty accurate weather forecasts for five days ahead. Most legs of the voyage are between five to seven days, with the longest being about 20 days crossing the Atlantic, so it’s very rare that we aren’t able to plan far ahead. If there’s terrible weather on the way, we can wait it out, or sail around it.”

The use of modern information technology together with age-old transportation methods is an interesting paradox, and it’s one that is certainly serving New Dawn Traders very well. 

“We’re brought up to understand that success comes from economies of scale, alway pushing for bigger and better. But this is often to the detriment of the planet and the people hidden in the chain,” Alex says. “I think in many ways the technology available to us now gives us the opportunity to turn that idea on its head. I can run much of the business as it is now on my own, communicating easily between the international community that supports it. I can grow it quite a bit with a small team, while on the move and — with our growing community’s support — hope- fully add our own ship to the fleet one day. By supporting and building alliances with similar and like-minded businesses, we’re creating a new industry that really can be successful, and on our own terms. Technology makes it possible to have that balance.”

New Dawn Traders in many respects is an organisation that rebels against today’s system: it works with a network of friends rather than working against competitors in a saturated marketplace; it uses modern technology to run a business that uses pre-20th century trading methods; and, as well as slow travel, its model is designed for slow growth as opposed to speed and quick expansion. Running such a business in an economy that isn’t sympathetic to this model can’t be an easy feat, but in order to be a sustainable and lasting business, its core values must be uncompromising. “I’ve become more hardened to my beliefs,” Alex describes. “There’s enough know- ledge out there to support a way of doing business that puts the wellbeing of people and the planet at the centre of the economy. There’s no real excuse not to.”

Lagom #4 cover

Read this story in the print edition of Lagom #4, with stories from Singapore to Brooklyn, South Africa to Greenland. As Alex breaths new life into traditional cargo shipping, we speak to other innovators who keep older traditions alive in modern times.

Buy Lagom #4