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Chocolate produced at Benns Chocolate Factory in Kawasan Perindustrian Cheras Jaya.

KUALA LUMPUR: Premium chocolate maker Benns Ethicoa Chocolate Factory Sdn Bhd is setting pace to tap new markets in Southeast Asia, namely Japan, Korea and further strengthen product and brand presence in Malaysia and Singapore next year.

Director Jerome Penafort said whilst Malaysia and Indonesia have been the net importers of chocolates for many years, countries like Europe, US, Australia and New Zealand that appreciate- premium chocolates, are also in the company's radar in terms of exploring new markets.

"These new markets have shown positive uptrend in terms of chocolate consumption which will be beneficial to the company in the coming years.

"Asia, on the other hand, has been the fastest growing region in terms of chocolate consumption driven by countries like India, China and Japan.

"For us, we see that the local cacao production is not enough to meet the demand for chocolates, which led us to buy cacao beans from farmers from other countries to produce premium chocolates for existing and new markets," he told The New Straits Times recently.

Jerome said by far, Europe is the largest consumer of chocolates but Malaysia and Singapore are currently the home markets for Benns.

Touching on local cacao farmers, executive director Wilfred Ng said Malaysia production is on a decline and will continue to decline in the coming years due to farmers switching to palm oil and durian planting for higher yield.

"This is a challenge and a sad fact that we are facing. Farmers are switching to better value crops like palm oil and durian and this has contributed to the decline in cacao production in the country," he said.

Such conditions, Wilfred said has pushed Benns to buy cacao beans from Asian countries, working directly with farmers in India, Thailand, The Philippines and Vietnam.

"These are the four countries Benns currently sourcing out cacao beans, including one local farmer, and we are also sourcing out other cacao planters from Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

"We are looking at a basket of Asian-origin in terms of buying cacao beans," he said, adding that the idea behind it is also to change the perception of where good chocolates comes from.

"Many people have this misconception that good chocolates comes from European countries like Belgium. But in reality, no cacao is grown there and only grown in tropical countries. Asia has good quality of cacao beans for premium chocolates," he said.

Benns has been the leader in bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the country, producing a variety of cacao-based products ranging from premium chocolates to beverages, cakes and snacks.

The company has invested over RM1 million to upgrade the current chocolate making facility in Balakong and is looking at expanding its product offering next year.

According to Wilfred, Benns aims to open its own trademark bean-to-bar cafe in the city centre by end 2020, part of the company plan to expand product outreach while continuing to focus on marketing and consumer research and development (R&D).

He said Benns may consider going public-listed in the next 2-3 years once it has established strong brand footing in Malaysia and well as Southeast Asia.

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