During the Malaysia Cocoa and Chocolate Day exhibition in October, I came across a bunch of different cocoa brands in Malaysia. While many of them were interesting, one particularly memorable booth I encountered was Koko Loko.
As I sampled the chocolate nibs and granola snacks, I eyed the poster sitting on the table.
“Our story is a good one,” it promised. Being a bit cynical, I had my doubts, but I kept reading. And good thing I did, because it totally proved me wrong.
Based in Sabah, Koko Loko’s “CEO” and face of the company is a 12-year-old by the name of Armand bin Idrizam. According to the poster, he even made the logo of the company himself, with the help of his younger brother Faheem.
Amazingly, Koko Loko even managed to raise USD$5,615 (over RM26,000) in 2021 through a crowdfunding platform called LaunchGood. The money was used to rent a shoplot in Lok Kawi, Kinarut, so Armand could have his own “Chocolate Factory”.
“Sometimes I think I am Willy Wonka,” the poster reads. “I watched that movie five times!”
Fully invested in the story, I decided I had to reach out to the brand to learn more. So, that’s what I did.
Growing up entrepreneurial
“Hi, my name is Armand!” a bright voice introduced through my laptop’s speakers chirpily. “I’m turning 13 in November, and I have a business called Koko Loko.”
Joined by his mum, Nina, over a video call with me, the well-spoken and charismatic CEO shared to me how Koko Loko came to be in 2019, when his mother had begun leading cocoa workshops in rural areas.
These workshops led them to a village called Kampung Tambatuon, where they encountered a lot of abandoned cocoa trees.
“We had the idea to help them not to waste the produce of the land and cocoa trees,” he says.
After sketching out some ideas, Koko Loko launched in 2020 with granola snacks, flavoured cocoa dips, and more.
But Armand’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Rather, it’s something that he’s had since he was even younger.
“I really like to earn my money on my own,” he shared. “When I was six, I used to have a healthy sausage business. I used to sell them to my friends, my mum’s friends, relatives, and everything like that.”
Although he was unable to continue the business once the family moved to Sabah, it turned out to be for the better as he now has Koko Loko.
Mum Nina is likely the one who has fostered Armand’s entrepreneurial streak. Other than introducing him to the world of chocolate, she also runs her own social enterprise, Grow the Goose, which helps children be financially empowered.
Duties as a CEO
Since the successful crowdfunding campaign, Armand’s dad has also stepped in to help with Koko Loko.
“Dad is basically the factory manager now, since Boy (Armand) has to go to school,” Nina explained.
However, Armand is still an integral part of the company, and is deemed its CEO.
“I don’t know what other CEOs do, but this is for me,” Armand said when asked about what his responsibilities in the company entail.
Taking on a very hands-on role, Armand helps with baking the cookies, washing the dishes, cleaning the place, helping with packaging, making invoices, and of course, socialising.
He picked up baking from his mum, having tried his hand at it since he was young.
“I really like the process,” he said. “And I really like the outcome.”
While the administrative task of typing up invoices was something he recently acquired, though, his networking skills are somewhat inborn.
“I like socialising,” he said. “[Even] when I was six, I wasn’t scared to start talking to people.”
Considering his demeanour during our conversation, I can vouch for that.
Finding a cause
When asked about what sets Koko Loko apart from other chocolate brands, Armand first shared about its product mix, which includes snacks, cookies, cocoa nibs, and more.
But other than that, he also wanted to shed light on the company’s initiative.
“I don’t know if other companies do this, but my mum taught me this from her workshop, Grow the Goose, to have an initiative to go with your business,” Armand said. “So, mine is help the corals and mangrove.”
This initiative was inspired by Armand’s interest in diving, which started when he first went to Sabah. At the time, he saw colourful corals and a robust sea life. However, after a few years, he found that the beaches were now filled with trash, resulting in dead corals and rising sea levels.
Thus, Armand is now dedicating around 10% to 20% of Koko Loko’s profits to the green initiatives.
Other than saving the corals and mangroves, Koko Loko also claims to pay its farmers higher-than-market wages, according to its poster.
“We teach them the steps to make our cocoa nibs, so it’s a win-win,” Armand explained. “They get more profit, and we get better quality products.”
Prior to this, Armand said the farmers had only sold unprocessed cocoa. But with the help of Koko Loko, they now have the skills as well as the equipment to increase their income.
This was made possible thanks to Koko Loko’s crowdfunding campaign, which was triggered by the company’s lack of equipment, since it was home-based in the beginning.
A work-school balance
At 12 going on 13, school is definitely still a priority of Armand’s. As such, he only works on Koko Loko once he’s done with his homework or over school holidays.
He admitted that the work does get overwhelming at times, but thankfully, he has the help of his family.
Other than balancing his time, Armand said that the other challenges for Koko Loko involves the cocoa yield as well as labour. As such, the team is now looking to hire more employees and work with more farmers.
“I want to expand as big as Milo,” Armand said. “Everyone in Malaysia knows about Milo, so I kind of want to be like that.”
On a smaller scale, Armand hopes to put Koko Loko products on the shelves of grocery stores and cafes.
“Oh, and I also want to restore the coral reefs in Sabah,” he added.
Ever-so ambitious, the young entrepreneur says he does see himself starting new businesses in the future, though he anticipates to continue working on Koko Loko.
“It started off as an experiment, just as a hobby, because he was bored during the pandemic,” mum Nina had mentioned during our call.
But it seems like that experiment has become a full-fledged operation, led by Armand’s passion and ambition for chocolate.
Featured Image Credit: Koko Loko