On the eve of World Chocolate Day, Filipina siblings Iman and Luchie Suguitan were busy preparing sweets, bars, chocolate drinks, brownies and other baked goods for a chocoholics event at Dubai Design District.
The UAE-brand chocolates were not only delightful and comforting – the sisters proudly said – they were also healthy and ethically-sourced, meaning the farm-to-bar single-origin chocolates were obtained through responsible and sustainable methods.
“We sourced our cocoa beans by working with small-holding, biodiverse farmers through our agri-social enterprise in the Philippines. Our cacao (unprocessed cocoa) are grown safely and naturally,” Iman, 44, told Khaleej Times on Thursday.
But it is not just about how the cocoa beans are grown but learning the story behind how the siblings’ started their thriving that makes it sweet. Iman said when her now 75-year-old mother was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the mid-2010s, she and her sister, Luchie, embarked on a mission to create diabetic-friendly chocolate to satiate their mother’s and their own cravings for sweets.
Conscious of their own health, they collaborated on a project and Co Chocolat was born in 2019 – first as an online business only, then followed by a physical store inside Candylicious at Dubai Mall.
Their operations in Dubai plus their agri-social enterprise in Agusan del Sur, Philippines caught the interest of Saudi businessman Fahad bin Juma, who was impressed with the ethical values and health philosophy of the sisters that he invested $1 million (Dh3.67 million) in Co Chocolat.
The sisters now have their own chocolate factory and café in Al Warsan, where cocoa beans are fermented to perfection and roasted in small batches to ensure quality, according to their health and flavour requirements.How it all started
Iman and Luchie both arrived in Dubai in 2004. They had relatives here so their mother felt comfortable to let her daughters explore the world on their own.
A graduate of Physical Therapy, Iman first worked as a fitness club sales manager. Luchie, on the other hand, worked as an operations manager and then as fund administration manager. They both got a scholarship in entrepreneurship and Iman ventured in hotel supplies business.
Between 2015 and 2016, Iman and Luchie discussed collaborating on a business and they focused on the gap in the market for“healthy chocolates”. They made their own research that led them to a province in Mindanao, south of the Philippine capital Manila.
Iman said:“We flew to Bayugan, a low-income municipality in Agusan del Sur. The province is rich in natural resources and farmers grow diverse crops, including cacao, coconuts, bananas, jackfuits and pineapples.
“We discussed with some friends and classmates to form a cooperative for small farmers to augment their income of around P1,500 to P2,500 (Dh100-Dh165) a month. By mid-2016, the cooperative OFW para sa Magsasaka (Overseas Filipino Workers for Farmers) was born,” she added.
The agri-business enterprise was the solution to the sisters’ problem of sourcing good cocoa beans.“We trained hundreds of farmers to produce quality cacao and that ensured our supply of raw cocoa,” noted Iman, adding:“The training also served its purpose of not doling out charity to farmers but it empowered them to make a better living.”Healthy mission
Now, Co Chocolat has 16 different flavours of chocolate bars, 8 varieties of chocolate tablets for hot choco drinks, and four flavours of chocolate nut spread called Gianduja, which Iman said is the“great grandmother of the popular chocolate and hazelnut spread”.
She asserted:“Our chocolates are created with customers’ health and wellness in mind. We grow ourselves the cocoa and use many superfood ingredients to flavour and as inclusions. We prefer to use fruit ingredients that give natural sweetness, and we use processed sugar minimally.
“We are committed to ensuring that each bite has a health benefit and this is reflected in the names of our choco flavours: stress-relieving, mood-enhancing, anti-oxidant, energy booster; immune system builder, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, vitality enhancer, and healthy heart health, to name a few. We use antioxidants, fibres, grains, moringa, oleic acid, and other ancient ingredients,” she added.What’s next
Iman said their vision is to become a popular chocolate brand in the region by 2030.
She added:“We are proud that we are home-grown business and we want to spread our wings by opening three more stores inside and outside the UAE in the next five years. But we also don’t want to be part of cheap, mass-produced chocolates. We will remain an ethical social-agri enterprise with focus on healthy living.
“We will keep in my mind how we started this business: To create diabetic-friendly chocolate to satisfy our mother’s and our own cravings for sweets.”World Chocolate Day
It’s everything sweet today – choco bars, white chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, truffles, bonbons, choco cakes, brownies and any choco-infused baked goods. Celebrated every July 7, World Chocolate Day is a day to revel in the irresistible flavours and the craftsmanship that goes into producing the delightful treats.
Historically, the day also commemorates the introduction of chocolate to Europe back in 1550. Before that, chocolate was primarily available only in specific countries in South and Central America, including Mexico. It was believed in 1519, an Aztec emperor gave a chocolate-based drink called Xocolatl (pronounced as shoh-KWAH-tul) to Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes, who brought the beverage to Europe and added sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon to make it sweeter.