Deep in the Mekong Delta, two Frenchmen who cofounded Vietnam’s first artisan chocolate maker bury their heads in a sack of cacao beans before resurfacing, murmuring appreciatively.
The sweet-toothed entrepreneurs — who quit their day jobs to set up award-winning chocolate company Marou — buy three out of four of 64-year-old farmer Vo Thanh Phuoc’s sacks of dried, fermented cacao, paying a premium on the market price for the better-than-average beans.
“When we started, the farmers thought we were crazy,” Marou cofounder Vincent Mourou told reporters as he nibbled on a cacao nib.
Every sack of beans is individually checked, since the smell, color, texture and taste give a good indication of the chocolate to come.
“Now, they try the beans too,” Mourou said.
Cacao was most likely first introduced in Vietnam by French colonialists in the late 19th century, but never took off as a cash crop.
As demand for high-quality chocolate rises globally — particularly in emerging markets — while supply from traditional producers like Ivory Coast falls due to ageing tree stock and other problems, the industry is eyeing communist Vietnam as a new supplier.
Cacao prices hit two-and-a-half-year highs late last month amid concerns over inventory and some industry figures are warning of a possible deficit of 1 million tonnes by 2020.
The chocolate industry is “desperate to diversify” its supply of beans, which would lessen the risk of supply crunches owing to disease or political unrest, World Bank lead economist in Hanoi Chris Jackson said.
Current cacao production in the Southeast Asian country is just 5,000 tonnes per year, compared with the approximately 1.4 million tonnes exported by the Ivory Coast, according to the International Cocoa Organization.
This figure needs to grow to give the cacao industry a chance in Vietnam, said Gricha Safarian, managing director of Puratos Grand-Place, a Belgian joint venture that produces the majority of chocolate used locally in Vietnam — by hotels, bakeries and ice cream companies — and exports high-quality chocolate and cacao beans.
“Vietnam has a place to take as a medium-size producer of quality beans,” said Safarian, who has worked in Vietnam’s nascent cacao industry for two decades.
“Year by year, the market is going to be more rewarding for quality beans because of this coming shortage” as demand for quality chocolate rises, especially in Asia, he added.
Vietnam’s chocolate has “a different flavor profile — the Vietnamese beans are rather different from the African bean,” which makes it stand out in the market, he said.
“The cacao sector in Vietnam is really at a crossroads: it could go for quality or quantity,” said Vien Kim Cuong, program manager for Swiss NGO Helvetas, which works with cacao farmers on certification.
The country is well-known for cheap agricultural exports like coffee — it provides 50 percent of the world’s low-end Robusta beans — and catfish so cheap it is repeatedly hit by US anti-dumping measures.
Marou and Puratos Grand-Place want the government to take a different, more upmarket route with the cacao sector: They are trying to add value locally and build a reputation for Vietnamese luxury chocolate.
“We transform an agricultural product — the cacao bean plus sugar — into a high-quality chocolate that we position as a premium product on the export market,” said Safarian, whose Made in Vietnam chocolate is found in top restaurants from Paris to Tokyo.