However you measure it – and the way the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) does is to look at the level of net imports – Chinese cocoa consumption is extremely low. But the agency’s Executive Director, Jan Vingerhoets, reckons that the potential for expansion is huge – and he has very clear ideas about how to exploit it, as Robin Stainer reports in the forthcoming July 2010 issue of Coffee & Cocoa International.
Generic promotion, which was the approach used in Japan to stimulate demand, was the answer, Vingerhoets told the International Forum on the Development of the Cocoa and Chocolate Industry in Beijing on May 21, when the Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association of China (CMAC) was inaugurated under the chairmanship of Jiantao Zhang of Mars Foods (China).
Before the 1990s, when the country began opening up to the world, cocoa consumption in China was negligible and it did not really start expanding until the early 2000s, reaching a peak in 2008 before collapsing the following year. The good news is that the trend is once again upward, with the ICCO, one of whose jobs is to promote demand, forecasting that apparent consumption (that is, net imports) will this year reach 40,000-45,000 tonnes, or double the 2009 level, although still below 2008’s peak of 60,000 tonnes.
That was the year of the Beijing Olympics, when manufacturers were counting on a surge in demand for chocolate products, but the foreign visitors – the most likely consumers – failed to materialise in the numbers expected. Moreover, the Games were held in the summer, when, because it starts to melt as temperatures soar, chocolate falls out of favour.
As a result, the industry was left with very large stocks, which had to be run down last year, when the industry also had to cope with the scandal over dried milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertiliser. Since a high proportion of the chocolate eaten in China – as well as produced for export – is the milk variety, its sales were hit badly. The global economic crisis, which led to reduced discretionary spending on luxuries, which chocolate most certainly is in China, didn’t help, of course.
“Fortunately all these negative factors are subsiding,” Vingerhoets told Coffee & Cocoa International, “and for 2010 we expect a real recovery, based on the trend of the first four months of the year.”
In the coming years, Vingerhoets sees two key factors that have the potential to drive up Chinese cocoa demand: rapid economic growth and a rising urban middle class, whose members are currently the main buyers of chocolate. Invariably, however, their purchases are only for special occasions, hence the popularity of presentation boxes of the top brands.
The aim, he says, is to change this through generic promotion – in his words “to make chocolate a regular part of a healthy diet, as in the West, not just a gift” – and, at the same time, to improve the quality of the product available at the bottom end of the market.