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10 tips for doing business with European cocoa buyers

Takes about 9 minutes to read

European buyers are constantly looking for ways to secure supplies of good-quality cocoa. This situation gives you the opportunity to establish long-term relationships with buyers, especially in the fine flavour segment. Here are some tips for doing business with European cocoa buyers. After reading these tips, you will have a better chance of convincing importers to buy your product.


1 . Have background information readily available

Your buyers in Europe will expect you to give them up-to-date and reliable data on the farm(s) and/or farmers that are producing your cocoa. Have these data available from the previous 3–5 years and work out a prediction for the 2–3 years to come. These data need to include detailed information on the following:

  • cocoa varieties;
  • your region;
  • the climate;
  • the soil;
  • your country;
  • the size of the farm;
  • the number of farmers and their family members;
  • how many kilograms or tonnes per farmer.

Tip:

  • Be transparent and honest. The cocoa market is a small one, in which negative experiences with suppliers travel quickly. So be honest about your own past experiences, the availability of volumes and varieties, and about other buyers with whom you are working.

2 . Maintain high quality and steady volumes

European buyers are looking for suppliers who can provide a continuous supply of high-quality cocoa in steady volumes. This fact means that you need to ensure compliance with the quality requirements for which your buyer is asking. But remember only to make promises that you can fulfil.

Keep your buyers regularly informed on the status of their orders. If you have any problems meeting certain quality requirements or volumes, you need to discuss this matter with your buyers in advance. Do not leave bad news to the last minute. Give yourself and your buyer enough time to work out a suitable solution.

Tip:

3 . Consider local processing

There is a real demand for locally processed products among customers worldwide. Explore the possibilities of processing your products locally. Roasting cacao nibs or developing semi-finished products such as droplets, for example, will give you a competitive advantage and add value to your products. Local roasting can also have a positive effect on marketing, because it allows your buyers to label chocolate products as locally processed.

When it comes to post-harvest handling, European chocolate makers are looking for suppliers that can guarantee quality fermentation and drying techniques. Some European chocolate makers are experimenting with these techniques themselves. If you communicate that you are open to change and willing to invest in additional processing so as to meet their specific requirements, you will find them to be very enthusiastic.

Consider inviting buyers to come over and discuss or try out new techniques. Work together to test the fermentation process, drying techniques and other types of processing.

Tips:

  • For locally dried and processed cocoa, packaging is very important, especially in case of whole roasted beans or nibs. You can, for example, work with vacuum-sealed micro-lots of 200 kg each.
  • Read our study of value-added cocoa products.

4 . Invest in personal partnerships

Direct trade in cocoa is very important. Your buyers will appreciate dealing with you personally rather than through agents. Similarly, the European cocoa sector is very much a people’s market. This fact means that your buyers value personal business relationships.

Here are a few ways of making your buyers feel important and valued:

  • Invite potential buyers for a personal visit.
  • Make them feel special and exclusive.
  • Offer them samples of micro-lots to test.
  • As traceability is very important, show them that you are able to offer it.
  • Offer one product to one potential buyer and a slightly different one to another.
  • If you are part of a cooperative, allocate buyers to their “own” farmers. This procedure will improve consistency in product quality and help to nurture a positive business relationship between all parties.
  • Communicate clearly, quickly, personally and regularly.
  • Be ambitious and show commitment.
  • Be aware of the cultural differences in Europe.

Tips:

  • If you have not mastered the English language well enough to communicate with your potential buyers, communicate in your native language. Alternatively, consider hiring an interpreter or translator. This approach will help you to avoid miscommunications.
  • Read more about the business cultures in Europe on Kwintessential.
  • Read this overview provided by Passport to Trade 2.0 for insight into the different business cultures across Europe.

5 . Help to organise transport and logistics

Help your potential buyers to arrange logistics. Be aware that small quantities (micro-lots) are a popular trend. Try and find logistics solutions (LCL) other than full containers.

Remember to invest in good-quality packaging. Buyers in Europe are looking for good quality and cost-efficiency. The condition in which your shipment arrives at your buyers’ warehouses will make or break your reputation. If you provide poor-quality packaging, you will damage the faith that your buyer has in your company.

Tips:

  • For more information about packaging, see our study of Buyer requirements.
  • You will find it more profitable to have five buyers with smaller orders than one buyer who purchases the whole lot. A diverse portfolio of clients also helps you to spread risks.

6 . Be well-informed on price and flexible on financing

Price and financing are two important areas to research when doing business in Europe.

You will find that chocolate makers are willing to pay an additional premium for good quality and a good story. For speciality/fine flavour cocoa, the premiums paid can reach € 500 to € 3,000 per tonne (above the London or New York stock market). You can check the daily prices for bulk cocoa at the website of the International Cocoa Organization.

Generally, prices are set in relation to the uniqueness, scarcity and origin of the particular cocoa.

Remember that exchange rates fluctuate. Cover this risk by including a clause on currency risk in your contracts.

In terms of financing, it is a good idea to look into the different options for export financing. Look, for example, at the options offered by local and international banks. Some buyers also offer pre-financing/advance payments, but you will need to agree these terms at the start of your negotiations.

Tip:

7 . Distinguish yourself from the competition

The best way to attract a buyer’s attention is by standing out from the competition. You need to find your distinguishing factor, your Unique Selling Point (USP).

When you have found your USP, you should promote it. Give your cocoa a face, a character and a story. Tell your buyers, for example, all about:

  • your cocoa varieties;
  • the history of your farm;
  • the microclimate where your farm is situated;
  • the way that you ferment and dry your beans.

Furthermore, provide photos of the farmers and their families, the plantations, and so on.

Buyers (and consumers) love to see the story behind the product. Especially chocolate makers like to sell their chocolates as an experience and will use your story to help market their products to consumers. This strategy is how they get their consumers to connect with their and your products.

Can your product offer buyers something a little different? You will find that European buyers are increasingly looking for non-bulk cocoa that has a specific flavour, nuances in fragrance or texture, for example. This segment is also referred to as fine flavour cocoa.

8 . Invest in online marketing

Build a website. It can be simple, but it needs to be accurate. Use it to tell the world what your story is. More importantly, use it to tell your buyers what you are doing. Mention and put emphasis on your USPs.

A solid and simple website should include:

  • company information;
  • information on the origin of your products;
  • product data;
  • the story of your cocoa product.

Give regular updates about your cocoa farm and/or cocoa products on social media; on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, for example. Buyers use these online platforms regularly, as do consumers.

Tip:

9 . Meet standard buyer requirements

The European Union’s requirements for food safety are strict. These requirements apply as much to the cocoa sector as to any other. Many cocoa buyers will look for suppliers that can comply with the prescribed legislation and regulations.

Buyers also value certification for sustainable production and/or Fairtrade. Be sure to check your potential buyer’s website to find out what their expectations are. Many larger European companies publish their own sustainability claims and policies on their websites. This information is a good indicator of what you can expect.

Traceability is a strong trend in cocoa products in Europe and an increasing number of chocolate makers mention the source of their cocoa on the product wrapping.

Tips:

10 . Learn from others, learn to collaborate and be aware of the differences in business culture

Find exporters from your own country and perhaps from other developing countries as well. Talk to them about their experiences in doing business with European buyers. Learn from their experiences and find out what they did or did not do when they started exporting to Europe.

Apart from talking to other companies in your field, it can also be a good idea to collaborate with them. Consider joining forces with other cocoa farmers, for example, and work together to promote your country or your region. Try and develop an image for your country or region as a producer of speciality cocoa.

If your region is not well known by buyers in Europe, you can work together as a national sector. You can also work together to improve any negative impressions that buyers in Europe may have about your country or region. Collaboration is a good way forward.

Be aware of cultural differences. Cultural awareness is key for success as an exporter. Some points to consider:

  • The international business language is English.
  • Religion is not that important when you are doing business in Europe.
  • Managers are generally open and friendly.
  • Northern European buyers are often straightforward and will tell you what they think, whereas southern European buyers are less direct.
  • Always keep your promises, be punctual and recognise the value of a contract.

Be honest at all times in your conversations with buyers, which is important and is greatly appreciated.

Tips:

  • Work together to promote good-quality cocoa from your region.
  • Promote the positive aspects of your country and promote good collaboration.
  • Read this overview provided by Passport to Trade 2.0 for insight into the different business cultures across Europe.

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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