When you eat chocolate, do you ever wonder where the chocolate is sourced from? Sure, it might be considered Swiss or Belgium chocolate, but that just means where the chocolate is produced—not where the cocoa is actually grown.
In actuality, cocoa can only be grown in tropical zones near the equator, in countries such as Ghana, Brazil, and, of course, Malaysia.
While Malaysia is home to quite a number of chocolate brands, as highlighted by this, not all of them allow for traceability—a practice that promotes cocoa sustainability while allowing consumers to recognise the growers of the cocoa.
But making this one of its core pillars is Benns Ethicoa, a local brand that prioritises ethically sourced bean-to-bar and single-estate chocolates made with beans from farms in Asia.
Trained as an engineer, Wilfred Ng founded the brand five years ago when he joined his family’s chocolate business.
Although Benns Ethicoa only started in 2017, its parent company, Benns Chocolate Factory, boasts over 45 years of chocolate-making experience, having been established in 1973.
“We were a commercial chocolate maker from the start,” Wilfred shared. “Though the bean-to-bar chocolate evolution started in the year 2000 in America, the concept in Asia only started around 2015 or 2016 in Japan.”
Wanting to join in on the movement, Benns Ethicoa was founded as a premium chocolate brand to adopt the bean-to-bar concept that was revolutionising the world of chocolate in Asia.
Setting the bar high
Coffee lovers will know the difference between single-estate or single-origin beans compared to blends. Single-estate beans typically have a more original and unaltered flavour profile, which makes the flavour bolder and more robust. The same is true for chocolate.
Wanting consumers to enjoy the unique flavours of the estates they work with, Benn Ethicoa decided to produce only single-estate chocolates, compared to its more commercial sister brand, Benns.
However, the flavour isn’t the only thing that the brand is concerned about.
“Many bean-to-bar makers just focus on developing flavours but we think the bean-to-bar concept encompasses more values than just chocolate making,” Wilfred explained. “We wanted our chocolate brand to be not only known for their flavours but also other good attributes.”
One such attribute is Benns Ethicoa’s dedication to ethical practices, a habit that is highlighted in its brand’s name itself—Ethicoa is a combination of the words ethical and cocoa.
“Most bean-to-bar makers have claimed they are doing good to the farmers but they buy beans from traders and may not even know exactly how much farmers are getting,” Wilfred said.
“In Benns Ethicoa, we practice direct trade. All beans are bought directly from farmers and we ensure our farmers receive a fair price for their beans. We have strict prerequisites for our farmers that there is strictly no child labour and has to adopt good farming practices.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why some other makers might claim that they are “doing good” is because they assume or hope that consumers would not be able to tell.
That’s why education is crucial in bean-to-bar marketing. Wilfred believes they cannot stop educating consumers on the difference between craft chocolates and commercial chocolates, which will help them recognise the efforts of farmers and the bean-to-bar chocolate-making processes.
“That’s the main reason we designed and built Malaysia’s biggest open-concept bean-to-bar chocolate factory,” Wilfred explained. “We want visitors to tour our factory and experience the whole chocolate-making process from cacao bean to chocolate bar.”
Benns Chocolate Factory is located in Cheras and tours for the factory can be booked online. Tickets are RM25 per pax, but children under 7 get to go in for free.
Here, visitors will experience the bean-to-bar process, exploring just how cacao is turned into artisan chocolate. There’s also an inhouse café where visitors can enjoy hot cocoa and some pastries.
Other than ethics and education, Benns Ethicoa also focuses on sustainability, in both the context of climate as well as financial sustainability for the farmers they work with.
Empowering the farmers
Making sure that the people they work with align with their vision, Benns Ethicoa has strict policies in its farmer partner selection.
The beans’ quality must meet the brand’s standards, and the farmers themselves must also exercise ethical practices, such as having a no-child labour policy.
The estates that Benns Ethicoa works with can be found on its website. The Malaysian estates it works with includes Sungai Ruan from Pahang, Panchor from Muar, and Chemor from Perak.
“We are very open about who our farmers are,” Wilfred said. “We promote them and their efforts. We pay our farmers up to three times the market price depending on the bean quality and promotion of good farming practices.”
Consumers and farmers can check Benns Ethicoa as well, as they publish cocoa prices as part of their transparency policy on Instagram.
But because of the higher cacao rates the company uses to pay the estates, Benns Ethicoa’s chocolates are also priced higher compared to your average chocolate bar from the grocery store.
However, Wilfred pointed out that the higher price tag isn’t just because of the cacao, either. Rather, it’s also because the chocolates are made in small batches, rather than mass-produced.
“One of our core pillars is to educate our consumer about why bean-to-bar chocolates are not cheap,” Wilfred said, hence the structure of their factory tours.
But do Malaysians even care?
Although what Benns Ethicoa is doing is noble, do consumers really care for these ideals? In fact, do they even care for artisanal chocolates, or is it one and the same for the general public?
“At the time of our founding, we realised Malaysian consumers’ knowledge of the chocolate supply chain is poor,” Wilfred shared. “I would say only one out of 10 Malaysian consumers knew chocolates are made from fruits!”
However, thanks to the internet, consumers nowadays are much more informed.
“Demand for fine chocolate increases as countries grow economically,” Wilfred said. “Lifestyles elevate, trends emerge, eating habits change, and buying power increases.”
And with that comes a push for sustainable and ethical practices. After all, that’s why more corporates are implementing ESG practices today, Wilfred pointed out.
And with consumers seeking higher-level food quality today, traceability and transparency have become even more important too. As consumers grow, Benns Ethicoa has to grow with them.
“I think the biggest challenge is change,” Wilfred admitted. “Learning new techniques, understanding consumer needs, and developing new products are just some of the constant processes we do in order to stay not only as a sustainable business but to stay on top of the game.”
Although Wilfred said that competition is intense both locally and internationally, his “workaholic” tendencies and love for chocolates are his driving forces.
In the long run, he hopes to see Benns Ethicoa elevate Southeast Asian single-estate chocolates even further to become a leading brand in Asia.
- Learn more about Benns Ethicoa here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Benns Ethicoa