Entering the Belgian market for cocoa
About 99% of Belgium’s cocoa bean imports are sourced directly from producing countries, which enter the country through Europe’s second largest cocoa port: the port of Antwerp. Sustainability is key in the Belgian cocoa sector. The increasing endorsement of certification provides an interesting entry point to exporters that have significant volumes and a wide assortment of certified cocoa.
You can only export cocoa to Belgium if you comply with strict European Union requirements. For a complete overview of these standards refer to our study on buyer requirements for cocoa or consult the specific requirements for cocoa in the EU Trade Helpdesk.
Buyer requirements can be divided into the following.
- Musts: legal and non-legal requirements you must meet to enter the market.
- Additional requirements: ones you need to comply with to keep up with the market.
- Niche requirements: applying to specific niche markets.
The highlights for these requirements are given below, specified for the Belgian market when relevant.
Legal and non-legal requirements you must comply with
You must follow the European Union legal requirements for cocoa, mainly dealing with food safety and hygiene. Related to this are the legal limits for food contaminants, of which the most common are:
- Pesticides (consult the EU pesticide database for an overview of the maximum residue levels (MRLs) for each pesticide)
- Mycotoxins (ochratoxin A is of special relevance for cocoa)
- Polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Microbiological contamination such as salmonella (although cocoa is considered low-risk)
- Heavy metals such as cadmium (which is a particular problem for cocoa from some Latin American countries due to factors like volcanic activity and forest fires).
If you want to access the Belgian market for cocoa beans, you will have to meet your buyer’s quality standards. They are particularly high within the specialty segment for fine flavour cocoa beans.
Buyers in Belgium and elsewhere currently assess the quality and flavour of cocoa beans in different ways and often use a combination of two or more methodologies. The guide Cocoa Beans: Chocolate & Cocoa Industry Quality Requirements provides recommendations on cocoa growing, post-harvest practices and quality evaluation methods that contribute to cocoa quality.
Other common cocoa quality assessment methodologies and international cocoa standards used among chocolate makers and cocoa traders include:
- ISO’s Standards on classification and sampling for cocoa beans
- The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI)’s cocoa sampling protocol and cocoa grading form
- Heirloom Cacao Preservation’s genetic evaluation of cocoa to identify and value cocoa and its flavour
- Equal Exchange/TCHO’s quality assessment and tasting guide to assess the quality of cocoa along the value chain
- The methodology developed by the Cocoa of Excellence Program, to assess the quality of cocoa in different stages.
There are no harmonised international procedures, nor is there a specific terminology for assessing cocoa bean quality and flavour and its direct relation to high-quality chocolate for buyers and consumers. However, a workgroup, coordinated by the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, is currently developing international standards for assessing cocoa quality.
The labelling on cocoa beans exported to Belgium should comply with the general food labelling guidelines of the European Union. The label should be in English and include the following topics to ensure traceability of individual batches:
- Product name
- Lot or batch code
- Country of origin
- Net weight in kilograms
If your cocoa is organic and/or Fairtrade certified, the label should contain the name/code of the inspection body and certification number.
Figure 2: An example of cocoa bean labelling
Source: Chocolate Cortés
Cocoa beans are traditionally shipped in jute bags, which when filled can weigh between 60 and 65 kilograms. On the mainstream market, bulk shipment of cocoa beans has become more popular. This means cocoa beans are loaded directly into the ship’s cargo hold or in shipping containers containing a flexi-bag (see Figure 3). This mega bulk method is often adopted by larger cocoa processors, which handle cocoa beans of standard qualities.
In the specialty cocoa segment, jute bags are still commonly used. For very high-quality micro lots, vacuum-sealed GrainPro packaging can be used.
Figure 3: Examples of packaging for cocoa: jute bag, container-sized flexi bag and GrainPro
Sources: Osu.edu, Bls.bulk.com and GrainPro
- For the full buyer requirements, read the study on buyer requirements for cocoa in Europe.
- Check the website of EUROLex for more detailed information about the regulations concerning cocoa products.
- Read more about the quality requirements of the European industry for cocoa beans on the Cocoa Quality website.
- Learn more about maintaining the quality of your cocoa during transportation on the website of the Transportation Information Service.
- Read more about trading and shipping cocoa beans in the Cocoa guide to trade practices of the International Trade Centre.
Additional requirements to keep up with the market
Additional food safety requirements
You can expect buyers in Belgium to request extra food safety guarantees from you. Regarding production and handling processes you consider the following.
- Implementation of good agricultural practices (GAPs): The main standard for good agricultural practices is provided by GLOBALG.A.P. This is a voluntary standard for the certification of agricultural production processes that provide safe and traceable products. Certification organisations (such as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ) often incorporate GAP in their standards.
- Implementation of a quality management system (QMS): A system based on Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) is often a minimum standard required at the level of storage and handling of cocoa beans. If you export semi-finished cocoa products, some buyers will also expect you to have certification, such as International Featured Standards: Food (IFS) or British Retail Consortium Global Standards (BRC) certificates, for your manufacturing facilities.
Additional sustainability requirements
As corporate responsibility and sustainability is key in the Belgian cocoa sector, it becomes essential to adopt codes of conduct or sustainability policies related to environmental and social impacts. Leading companies in the Belgian chocolate market (such as Guylian and Leonidas) have sustainability policies emphasising the contact with producers, transparency in their operations, as well their social and environmental impact.
Certification standards like Rainforest Alliance (merged with UTZ in 2018) are important on the mainstream chocolate market. About 160 traders, cocoa processors, chocolate manufacturers and retailers operating in Belgium are Rainforest Alliance/UTZ-certified.
- Refer to the International Trade Centre Standards Map or the Global Food Safety Initiative website to learn about the different food safety management systems, hygiene standards and certification schemes.
- Find out which standards or certifications are preferred by potential buyers in your target segment. Buyers may have preferences for a certain food safety management system or sustainability label depending on their end clients and/or distribution channels.
- See our study on certified cocoa for more information about the demand on the European market, trends and specific trade channels.
In order to market your cocoa as organic in the European market, it must comply with the regulations of the European Union for organic production and labelling. EU Organic is the minimum legislative requirement for marketing organic cocoa in the European Union. Belgium has one private organic label: Biogarantie.
The market for fair-trade cocoa also offers interesting opportunities in Belgium. The most common fair-trade standards on the Belgian market are Fairtrade and Fair for Life. Before you can market your cocoa beans as fair trade and/or organic, an accredited certifier must audit your growing and processing facilities. Examples of accredited certifiers are Control Union, Ecocert, FLOCERT, ProCert and SGS.
- Learn more about organic farming and European organic guidelines on the European Union website and the Organic Export Info website.
- Find importers that specialise in organic products on the Organicbio website.
- Visit trade fairs for organic products, like Biofach in Germany. Check out their website for a list of exhibitors, seminars and other events at this trade fair.
- If you produce cocoa according to a Fairtrade scheme, find a specialised Belgian buyer who is familiar with sustainable and/or fairtrade products, for instance through the FLOCERT customer database.
- Try to combine audits, if you have more than one certification, to save time and money. Also investigate the possibilities for group certification with other producers and exporters in your region.
How is the end market segmented?
Cocoa beans are used for processing in four different industries: confectionery, food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical. This document focuses only on the confectionery industry, as this is the main segment for cocoa beans. In 2017, the confectionery industry alone used up to about 43% of total global cocoa consumption. It mainly processes cocoa liquor and butter into chocolate products, such as bars, candy bars and bonbons.
The confectionery industry can be segmented according to the quality of the end products. For cocoa beans, the end products mainly consist of chocolate bars.
Figure 4: Segmentation of the chocolate market based on quality
Low end: The low-end segment offers cheap cholate products, with lower cocoa content. The products are often produced by large chocolate manufacturers, for which they predominantly use bulk cocoa from West Africa (Forastero variety). Bulk cocoa is characterised by high volumes, low value and standard quality. Rainforest Alliance/UTZ-certified cocoa has become mainstream, and is increasingly being used to certify low-end products.
Lower-end chocolate products are usually mass-market products of big brands and lower-quality private label products from supermarkets. The market share of private labels in Belgian supermarkets has steadily increased since 2010, reaching a market share of 36% in 2016. Mainstream brands for chocolate bars and candy bars found on the low end of the Belgian confectionery market include:
- Côte d’Or, Milka and Toblerone (manufactured by Mondelez)
- Kinder and Ferrero Rocher (Ferrero)
- Nestlé l’Atelier and KitKat (Nestlé)
- Mars, Bounty and Twix (Mars)
- Jacques (produced by Baronie).
The aforementioned products are mostly sold in supermarkets. The largest retailer groups in Belgium are:
- Colryut Group (which includes supermarkets Colruyt, Okay, Cru, Spar and Bio Planet) with a market share of around 32% in 2018
- Ahold Delhaize (Delhaize and Albert Heijn), 25% market share
- Carrefour, 18% market share
- Discounters Aldi (9%) and Lidl (5%).
An indication of consumer chocolate prices (based on Delhaize’s retail prices in 2019) in Belgian supermarkets for lower-end products is as follows:
Jacques (dark chocolate, 52%)
Delhaize (dark chocolate 74%)
Côte d’Or Classic (dark chocolate, 54%)
Middle range: The middle-range segment includes chocolate products of good quality, which are commonly sustainably certified. Storytelling and the origin of the cocoa beans are important in this segment, mainly for marketing purposes.
Examples of middle-range products available in Belgium include the popular Swiss brand Lindt. Lindt is mainly known for their wide range of premium chocolate bars from either Trinitario and/or Forastero cocoa. Côte d’Or also offers middle-range products, such as their Fin product line.
Supermarkets also increasingly offer premium private label chocolate products. An example is Boni Selection (a private label brand from Colruyt), which offers premium dark chocolate bars from various origins. These products offer the same quality and characteristics as branded products, but are usually offered at more competitive prices. Another example is private label brand Bio Delhaize offering a line of organic products.
These middle-range products are mainly sold through supermarkets, but positioned at the high-quality category. The table below gives an indication of consumer chocolate prices for middle-range products (based on Delhaize’s retail prices in 2019):
Côte d’Or Fin (dark chocolate, 70%)
Galler (dark chocolate, 70%)
Sweet-Switch (dark chocolate, sugar-free, 70%)
High end: Smaller, more specialised chocolate makers produce high-end chocolate products, often using fine flavour cocoa (usually a mix of Criollo, Trinitario and/or to a lesser extent Forastero). These products are characterised by a high cocoa content. Single-origin cocoa beans are important, both for the taste as well as the traceability of the cocoa. Bean-to-bar chocolate is a good example of a high-end product.
Deremiens, Millésime Chocolat, Coup de Chocolat, Romance Chocolate and Legast are examples of Belgian brands and specialty chocolate makers that produce high-end products. These products are mainly sold through specialty brands and shops. Examples of Belgian specialty chocolate makers and shops include Chocolatier Reen, Hilde Devolder Chocolatier and Rob The Gourmets’ Market.
Chocolate consumer prices for high-end chocolate products in Belgium are:
Deremiens Mayata (dark chocolate, Haiti, 70%)
Legast Upala (dark chocolate, Costa Rica, 70%)
Millésim Chocolat (dark chocolate, Ecuador, Arriba Nacional, 70%)
For exporters it is important to realise that trade prices and retail prices behave independently, and thus are not directly linked. As the figure below shows, only 6.6% of added value goes to farmers. In general, export prices of cocoa beans, and the share kept by cocoa producers, will depend on the cocoa bean quality, the size of the lot and the supplier’s relationship with the buyer. The largest shares are kept by chocolate companies and retailers.
- Learn more about the promotion of standard quality and speciality chocolate by mainstream Belgian supermarkets such as Colruyt. Compare their product assortment and price levels with specialised chocolate stores such as Chocolatier Reen.
- Refer to our study on trends in the cocoa sector to learn more about developments within different market segments.
- Monitor end-consumer prices of chocolate to get an idea of price ranges. Good sources for price information are the websites of supermarket chains, chocolate specialty stores and chocolate web shops.
As an exporter, you can use different channels to bring your cocoa to the Belgian market. Entering the market will vary according to the quality of your cocoa beans and your supply capacities.
It is important to realise that the European market is moving towards shortened supply chains. This means retailers and cocoa-processing companies are increasingly sourcing their cocoa beans directly. The figure below shows you the most important channels for cocoa beans in Belgium:
Figure 6: The main channels for export of cocoa to Belgium
Cocoa bean processors/grinders and industrial chocolate producers
Large processors/grinders source their cocoa beans directly from producing countries. They process the raw material into cocoa mass, cocoa butter and/or cocoa powder, which they distribute to the confectionery, food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries throughout Europe. The grinders active in Belgium also manufacture industrial chocolate to supply the confectionery and food industry.
The three companies active on the Belgian market as cocoa grinders and industrial chocolate producers are Barry Callebaut, Belcolade and Cargill. Barry Callebaut is the largest of the three; it provides about 70% of all industrial chocolate in Belgium to chocolate companies.
For whom is this an interesting channel? If you are an exporter of high volumes of bulk beans, then your direct trading partner is usually a cocoa grinder/processor. These companies tend to buy high volumes of standard qualities. They usually have cocoa-buying stations in producing countries to which you can sell your beans directly.
Importers of bulk cocoa handle large quantities and have contacts with exporters in producing countries. In most cases, importers have long-standing relationships with their suppliers. Importers either sell the cocoa beans to companies in Belgium or re-export them to other European buyers. Examples of large importers of cocoa beans and/or cocoa derivatives active in Belgium are Cacao Craft and Group Sopex.
Importers active in the specialty segment usually deal with smaller quantities, and often work directly with producers and producer cooperatives. Examples of specialty trading companies in Belgium are Le Cercle du Cacao and Silva, which source fair and sustainably produced high-quality cocoa beans from various origins.
Specialised importers could also be interested in value-added cocoa products processed at the country of origin, as described in our study on the European market for semi-finished cocoa products.
For whom is this an interesting channel? For exporters working with high volumes of bulk beans from producers/cooperatives, large importing companies can serve as a gateway into the Belgian market. If you deal with bulk cocoa, discuss certification requirements and possible industrial applications with your importer. Note that many specialised importers prefer to work directly with producers and/or cooperatives and not through exporters.
A producer association selling specialty or certified cocoa can best sell its cocoa beans directly to specialised cocoa importers. If you produce or have very high-quality cocoa beans and you are working through an importer, it is best to also discuss the possibilities to directly link up with high-end chocolate makers.
If you are a farmer with the financial means and technical know-how to organise export activities, also consider selling your beans directly to specialised importers or chocolate makers.
Large (private label) chocolate manufacturers
Large chocolate manufacturers active on the Belgian market are: Mars, Mondelez, Ferrero and Belcolade. These companies all have their own importing departments and source their cocoa beans directly from producing countries. Other major Belgian chocolate companies, such as Guylian and Leonidas, start their production process using industrial chocolate, which is supplied to them by Barry Callebaut.
Private label manufacturers may also be an interesting entry point for your cocoa beans. These companies are growing in importance as it becomes more common for major brands to outsource their production to specialised private label manufacturers. Examples of large private label manufacturers in Belgium are Althaea, Gudrun Group, Kim’s Chocolates and The Belgian Chocolate Group. Baronie (besides producing its own popular chocolate brands Jacques and Van Houten) also produces private-label brand products for retailers.
For whom is this an interesting channel? Selling to these players is interesting if you have cocoa of a standard quality in high volumes. This may also be an interesting channel for local grinders with cocoa mass and cocoa butter that meet high quality standards (which means they do not need to be processed again). Then you can trade directly with European confectionery and food companies. With lower quality semi-processed cocoa products, your direct trading partner will usually be a European importer or grinder.
Small and middle-sized chocolate makers
Especially in the specialty and fine flavour segment, cocoa beans are increasingly traded directly between farmer (association) and chocolate maker. Although direct trade is growing, it still only represents a very small part of the cocoa market. Not all chocolate makers are able to sustain direct trade, since responsibilities that are usually outsourced to traders (such as logistics, documentation and pre-financing) now need to be handled by the chocolate maker.
In this sense, direct trade can also have an importer as intermediary, acting as a service provider and contact point in the transactions between the source and the end market. Such importers can also guarantee traceability and communicate the story of the cocoa beans accurately along the chain.
Examples of specialised chocolate (bean-to-bar) makers in Belgium that source specialty cocoa directly from producing countries are Benoit Nihant, Bruyerre, Coup de Chocolat, Daskalidès, Deremiens, Galler,Legast, Mike & Becky, Millésime Chocolat, Montserrat and Romance Chocolate.
For whom is this an interesting channel? Targeting specialty chocolate makers directly is recommended for producers and exporters dealing with specialty cocoa beans. You must have the financial means and technical know-how to organise export activities. You could also consider setting up local processing facilities to add more value to your cocoa beans. Our study on the European market for semi-finished cocoa products discusses this more in depth.
- Find buyers in Belgium who match your business philosophy and export capacities (in terms of quality, volume, certifications). For more tips on finding the right buyer for you, see our study on finding buyers on the European cocoa market.
- Attend trade fairs in Europe to meet potential buyers. Interesting trade events include Chocoa, Salon du Chocolat and Biofach (organic products). Attending such events can provide you with additional insight into the preferences of Belgium buyers, with regard to origin, flavour and sustainability certification. By understanding the market better, you can ensure that your specific product corresponds to the demand and requirements.
- Connect to platforms or traders such as Direct Cacao and Cocoanect; they help establish links between farmers and chocolate makers. Read more about direct trade and shorter cocoa chains in our study on trends in the cocoa sector.
- Use industry associations to find potential buyers in Belgium, such as the Association of the Belgium Confectionery Industry (CHOPRABISCO).
- Invest in longterm relationships. Whether you are working through an importer or directly with a chocolate maker, it is important that you establish a strategic and sustainable relationship with them. This will help you manage market risks, improve the quality of your product and reach a fair quality/price balance. For more tips, read our study on doing business with European cocoa buyers.
The degree of rivalry on the market is generally high for bulk cocoa with low added value. This segment is mainly dominated by major suppliers and cooperatives able to deliver large quantities so they can compete on price. It is difficult for small and medium-sized companies to compete with this segment. The degree of rivalry is lower in the specialty cocoa market. In this segment there is more focus on quality, taste and sustainability.
Large Belgian industrial chocolate industry relies on supplies from West Africa
Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana fuel the Belgian cocoa processing industry. Together they supply 75% of total Belgian cocoa bean imports. The entire West African region provides 82% of total Belgian supplies. Cocoa produced in West Africa mostly comes from the Forastero cocoa tree, and is targeted at creating high volumes for the mainstream market.
West African cocoa-producing countries rely on well-established cocoa supply chains. Multinational companies (such as OLAM and Cargill) are a major presence, to which small cocoa producers and cooperatives are strongly linked, especially in Ivory Coast. A large share of cocoa produced in Ivory Coast and Ghana is Rainforest Alliance/UTZ-certified, which is a market entry requirement to large manufacturers and retailers operating in mainstream markets.
Between 2014 and 2018, Belgian cocoa bean imports from Ivory Coast remained stable, while Nigeria increased its supplies significantly (+29%) and Ghana saw its supplies decrease (−20%).
Supplies from Latin America to Belgium show modest growth
Latin American countries are known for their high shares of fine flavour cocoa in total production, as well as for the production of organic cocoa. About 70% of organic cocoa is produced in Latin America. In 2018, Latin America supplied around 13% of Belgium’s cocoa beans. Between 2014 and 2018, Latin American supplies increased at an average annual rate of 1.7%. This increase was largely due to an increased demand for fine flavour cocoa. Fine flavour cocoa beans mainly consist of Trinitario and Criollo beans.
In 2018, the largest suppliers were Peru (4.6% market share), Dominican Republic (3.8%) and Ecuador (3.4%). Peru’s supplies increased at an average annual rate of 7.6% between 2014 and 2018. As much as 75% of Peru's cocoa exports are fine flavour beans. Peru is also a major producer of organic cocoa beans (the world’s third largest).
Supplies to Belgium by the Dominican Republic decreased at an average annual rate of 2.6% between 2014 and 2018. This decrease in exports is explained by unfavourable weather (prolonged rains, followed by drought) negatively affecting production volumes. The Dominican Republic is the world’s largest organic cocoa producer. A great share of the country’s organically produced cocoa is also Fairtrade certified. About 40% of Dominican Republic’s cocoa bean export are registered as fine flavour cocoa.
Ecuador’s exports to Belgium also saw an increase in the period 2014-2018 (−3.5%). Some 75% of Ecuador’s exports are fine flavour beans.
- Identify your potential competitors. To be successful as an exporter, it is important to learn from them. Focus on their marketing strategies, the product characteristics they highlight and their value addition approaches. Successful companies that already export to the European market from which you can learn include Casa Franceschi (Venezuela), Hacienda Betulia (Colombia), Ingemann (Nicaragua) and Xoco Gourmet (Central America, mainly active in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua). Have a look at their websites to see how they highlight information about their products, such as their cocoa varieties, origin and processing methods.
- Identify and promote your unique selling points. Give detailed information about your cocoa growing region (origin), the varieties, qualities, processing techniques and certification of the cocoa you offer. You can also tell about the history of your organisation, your cocoa growing farm(s) and the passion and dedication of the people working there. These are all elements that make your company unique.
- Actively promote your company on your website and at trade fairs. Flavour quality competitions also provide good opportunities to share your story (example: International Chocolate Awards of the Cocoa of Excellence Programme).
- Work together with other cocoa producers and exporters in your region when your company or product volume is on the smaller size. Together you can promote goodquality cocoa from your region and be a more attractive and more competitive supplier for the European market.
- Develop longterm partnerships with your buyer. This implies always complying with buyer’s requirements and keeping your promises. This will provide you with a competitive advantage, more knowledge and stability on the European market.
- Check possible programmes to support (the productivity of) your crop. Refer to your national Ministry of Agriculture and other local programmes. Also check if there are local support programmes in your region from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Finance Corporation (IFC), World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and other organisations.
This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by ProFound – Advisers in Development.
Please review our market information disclaimer.