All natural, vegan friendly chocolate: The growing appetite for local and regional specialty cacao

Malaysian chocolate brand Cocova’s extensive product range. — Pictures courtesy of Cocova
Malaysian chocolate brand Cocova’s extensive product range. — Pictures courtesy of Cocova

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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 10 — Who doesn’t like chocolate?

Whether in the form of warm, fudgy chocolate brownies fresh out of the oven or a tall glass of ice cold chocolate milk on a hot day, this is seriously irresistible stuff.

No surprise then, that beyond the aisles full of commercial chocolate bars and chocolate malt beverages in the supermarket, there is a growing market for artisanal chocolates. Many of these are imported from overseas but local specialty chocolates are making their mark too.

One such player is Cocova, a homegrown purveyor of single origin chocolates that are all natural and vegan friendly. Co-founder Chan Jinli had spent almost 15 years in the media and broadcast industry, so she grew Cocova with a sharp eye for brand development.

Indeed, bright, vibrant colours form an integral part of Cocova’s branding. But this venture into all things chocolate, despite her love for the ingredient, was far from an assured career step.

Cocova founder Chan Jinli (left). Pouring a cool glass of iced chocolate (right).
Cocova founder Chan Jinli (left). Pouring a cool glass of iced chocolate (right).

The 36-year-old entrepreneur shares that she had met her former business partner by chance a couple of years ago. Serendipitously, they both discovered they shared a passion for chocolates, as well as what they perceived as a purported lack of good quality hot chocolate at local cafés.

Chan recalls, “At that time, I was on the lookout for a new job but it never occurred to me to start a business, let alone in an industry that I knew nothing about!”

Sometimes timing is everything. Barely two months after their initial meeting, the duo decided to take the plunge and left their corporate jobs to start Cocova.

“Our hopes were to provide a better and healthier chocolate experience to fellow Malaysian chocolate lovers,” Chan explains. “Unfortunately, she has since left the business to pursue a job opportunity and I am now taking on the challenge as a sole business owner.”

Cacao beans and pods.
Cacao beans and pods.

To kickstart Cocova, Chan had sent out online surveys to friends, family and ex-colleagues, interviewing them to gain insights on their chocolate preferences and consumption behaviour.

“We spoke to farmers and manufacturers, and explored cocoa powder with the goal of making the perfect chocolate drink in mind. However, even after many rounds of R&D (research & development), we were still not satisfied with the end product.”

Back to the drawing board then. Thanks to her varied experience in TV production and content creation, Chan conducted a focus group and invited some members of the target market for a blind test.

Drying the cacao (left) and raw cacao nibs (right).
Drying the cacao (left) and raw cacao nibs (right).

“With their feedback and suggestions, we eventually ditched the powder and launched the chocolate buttons instead. It turned out to be a great decision because our customers love the buttons which are very versatile as they can not only be used for making hot chocolate, but for baking and snacking too!”

Cocova sources their cacao both locally and regionally, bucking the trend where the chocolate you enjoy is made from cacao originating in a distant country such as Ghana, Nicaragua or Peru.

Chan shares, “Our main cacao beans come from Melaka, and we focus on Asian cacao to support the ecosystem. We also promote fair-trade by purchasing our cacao beans directly from the farmers, cutting out middle costs and enabling the farmers to earn a larger share for their hard work.”

One of Cocova’s stalls at a bazaar some years ago.
One of Cocova’s stalls at a bazaar some years ago.

Finally feeling ready, Chan and her former partner launched Cocova in Dec 2019, with bazaars and events as their main sales channel. As a new food brand, the fledgling business relied heavily on the exposure from events to build brand awareness and to gain feedback from their customers.

The startup grew steadily but then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. A crucial pivot, not so much for their product line but their sales channels, was required.

Chan says, “We had to quickly move online and sell via Instagram and Facebook before launching our website in September 2020. Now, 70 per cent of Cocova’s sales come through our online channels and you can also find our products at retailers such as Qra, The Hive Bulk Foods, MPH and some local cafés.”

Bright, vibrant colours form an integral part of Cocova’s branding.
Bright, vibrant colours form an integral part of Cocova’s branding.

Still the conditions were far from ideal, particularly when the pandemic and subsequent restrictions took place. Chan shares, “During the first lockdown, we did not have a strong online presence and barely had any sales. Being an inexperienced small team with only funds from our own savings, it was a steep learning curve for us but we eventually managed to set up our website and build our online presence at our own pace.”

A year on, Cocova has a stronger market presence with new products in their ever-growing line. Coated nuts such as dark chocolate coated hazelnuts and almonds, in particular, have proven popular with customers.

However, Chan admits that she is still learning: “We are now a lot more prepared and experienced in handling our online sales, marketing and logistics. Despite the lockdown challenges, we try our best to stay afloat and anticipate customers’ needs.”

Adapting swiftly to changing trends and challenges faced by customers has proven to be a lifesaver. While in-person events were the norm prior to the pandemic, Cocova also made sure to cater to virtual or no-contact events that are becoming commonplace.

Coated nuts such as these dark chocolate coated hazelnuts and almonds have proven popular with customers.
Coated nuts such as these dark chocolate coated hazelnuts and almonds have proven popular with customers.

Collaborations with corporate clients, particularly for festive occasions, could mean gift packages customised for their needs, even without face-to-face events. Chan proudly announces, “We provide exceptional customer service to our corporate clients and have served companies such as Jobstreet, Photobook, MSC Shipping Company, and Columbia Asia, just to name a few.”

Moving forward, Chan aims to cater to more corporate clients and retailers in the near future. She also hopes to streamline Cocova’s products to better serve the market. New challenges will continue to arise but the forecast is encouraging.

For rain or shine, good days or bad, who could say no to a bit of chocolate?

Cocova
Web: cocova.co
FB: facebook.com/cocovamy/
IG: instagram.com/cocovamy/

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