Generation Start-up: How two sisters are sweetening the appeal of healthy chocolates

Co Chocolat's Iman and Luchie Suguitan hope to support cacao farmers in their native Philippines through their Dubai venture

Iman and Luchie Suguitan, the founders of Co Chocolat, with their business partner, Saudi entrepreneur Fahad bin Juma, at their cafe in Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National
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In the outskirts of Dubai, nestled within the sand dunes of Warsan, is a warmly lit cafe where artisanal chocolatiers, the Suguitan sisters, conjure up sweet and healthy delights that they hope will not only make their customers happy, but also serve a greater purpose.

The founders of Co Chocolat, whose venture began after they signed a pact on a notebook on their sofa in 2015, are clear that they will maintain certain principles.

“We both agreed in writing, and signed it, on what our tasks would be and the milestones we have to achieve. Whoever fails will get the penalty of having her share in the company reduced,” chief operating officer Luchie Suguitan tells The National.

“When you write something down, it's not just ideas — it sort of becomes a tangible milestone … we seriously committed to make it happen.”

The choice of starting a venture in chocolate came after the sisters, avid chocolate eaters, found a gap in the market when it came to providing healthier options.

“They remained dark, but they kept becoming sweeter and sweeter,” chief executive Iman Suguitan says. “They didn't taste like real chocolates any more.”

A key aspect was ensuring that their products were both tasty and healthy.

“We come from a family with a history of cardiovascular disease. And our mother developed diabetes [later in life]; she also suffered a stroke,” says Iman.

“She loves food, she cooks food, but she had been eating badly. We thought, 'if we're not going to be careful, we're going to end up in the same [place]'.”

We wanted to operate interest free, sleeping at night knowing that we're not going to be chased by banks
Iman Suguitan, co-founder and chief executive of Co Chocolat

The Suguitans came to Dubai in 2004. Iman founded a hotel supplies company in 2009 while Luchie worked in private equity for more than a decade.

Once the idea for Co Chocolat was born, they began by carrying out research on cacao, the raw and unprocessed version of cocoa, from which chocolates are made.

And when the time came to look for sources, the sisters — born and raised in the business district of Makati City in Metro Manila — found one in Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines' southern region of Mindanao.

The island in the South-East Asia nation is a key cacao producer. It produced 3,160 tonnes in the fourth quarter of 2022, up 2.6 per cent annually from 3,080 tonnes in the same period in 2021, the latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority shows.

However, the sisters soon discovered that cacao farmers were in dire straits financially, prompting them to put their idea on hold.

“At the time [in 2016], we found out through a former classmate that a non-governmental organisation was aiming to increase cacao farmers' monthly income to 1,500 pesos per month [$27],” Iman says.

“We thought that we could spend that amount on fast food in one night, and we realised it was a waste of money. So, we decided to put our chocolate dreams on the back burner in the meantime and do the social enterprise first, and help those farmers by stabilising the cacao source.”

They became “cacao doctors” and set up agricultural social enterprise, Overseas Filipinos Supporting Filipino Farmers (OPM), which supports and educates cacao farmers in the Philippines.

Having established the first part of their supply chain, the next step was finding the funds to start operations for Co Chocolat.

However, the sisters did not want to take out bank loans, which they believed would hurt them in the long run.

“We wanted to operate interest-free, sleeping at night knowing that we're not going to be chased by banks,” Iman says.

“We also heard stories from other companies that were doing well but, somehow, interest caught up with them.”

They put in their own money and asked about 50 family members and friends — “anyone who was willing to help” — to fund Co Chocolat's initial operations.

When you write something down, it's not just ideas — it sort of becomes a tangible milestone ... we seriously committed to make it happen
Luchie Suguitan, co-founder and chief operating officer of Co Chocolat

Having launched with that amount, their operations caught the eye of Fahad bin Juma, a businessman from Saudi Arabia, with whom they shared the same values and health philosophies.

“He has also been on a healthy journey, so he understands our business. He's using a low-carb diet and he knows how hard it is to keep fit,” Iman says.

Also a chocolate fan, Mr bin Juma, whose family has interests in the property and hospitality sectors, personally invested about $1 million in Co Chocolat.

His partnership with the Suguitan sisters stemmed from his search for viable start-ups to invest in.

“I read about the best chocolate in Dubai, and then I searched for Co Chocolat. I met Iman and Luchie, and found a good chance for business, which I am proud of,” Mr bin Juma tells The National.

To this day, Co Chocolat remains debt-free, says Iman — a strategy they plan to continue pursuing. Bringing in new investors would only be done “if the offer is good enough”.

That has also enabled them to be one of the best-paying — if not the highest — customers of farmers back in Agusan del Sur, where they buy their cacao.

Meanwhile, Luchie, who has studied for a Chartered Institute of Marketing qualification and heads the Co Chocolat kitchen, says they were keen to innovate their product beyond regular chocolate bars.

“We now had the beans, but what are we to do with them,” she says.

She regularly took online classes — still does to this day — and also explored how chocolate is made around the world.

In the US, she learnt how to make chocolate bars from beans. And in Europe, particularly in France, she studied how to make cacao beans into truffles, cookies and spreads — all of which are on full display in their Warsan cafe.

She has also ventured into “wildcard” creations such as chocolate bars with turmeric and black pepper, as well as chocolate tablets infused with collagen, which are melted into a drink, Filipino-style.

“If people don't love it, it's not for them. So, when they love it, I'm on cloud nine.”

In November, the start-up opened the Middle East's first farm-to-table chocolate factory in Warsan.

The start-up is now planning to expand, with Saudi operations expected to start in 2023. It has also received inquiries from Oman and the UK.

The company also aims to invest in cacao bean farms in the Philippines.

“It's a good country to find good business,” Mr bin Juma says. “The sisters started something amazing and we hope we are going to grow very fast.”

However, Luchie and Iman acknowledge that marketing and selling their products can be a challenge, given that “truly healthy chocolates” — their tagline — are more expensive, compared with what you can get on grocery shelves.

“Generally, people have the perception that when it is healthy, it doesn't necessarily have to taste good. And tasting good only comes from adding so much sugar,” Luchie says.

Co Chocolat does not use cane sugar but prefers alternative types of sugar sourced from coconuts and dates.

“We don't want to be part of cheap, mass-produced chocolates. If you want to eat huge amounts of unethical and unhealthy chocolates, you are not for us,” says Iman.

“Yes, we are not cheap. You may not eat half a kilo from us, maybe just a hundred grams, but it's worth your body's well-being.”

Q&A with Iman and Luchie Suguitan, co-founders of Co Chocolat

How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your operations?

Iman: It affected us, but in a good way. Because we launched online, we were prepared to be online. So, the moment the lockdown happened, people started ordering. We were relieved that we had invested a lot on our website since 2019.

What are the key aspects of running a chocolate business?

Luchie: [A key highlight is] when you're trying to develop a new product or a new concept, because this is where the creativity really comes in. You need to think about the colours and packaging, [about] what will entice people. It is a combination of science, psychology and art.

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Co Chocolat

Started: 2017

Founders: Iman and Luchie Suguitan

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Food

Funding: $1 million-plus

Investors: Fahad bin Juma, self-funding, family and friends

What do you do in your free time, if you have any?

Iman: We go to the park or eat out to have something different. This is nowadays; in the past, when we [used to] head home, we would always talk about ideas because we always have lots of them. We try to minimise this but at the end of the day, we still talk about the business — whether we admit it or not.

What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Luchie: It is a long-term investment. If you are going to do business, be ready for the long haul. Overnight success does not exist. It is a lot of hard work, discipline, sacrifices and how you present yourself. Whatever product you have, if it looks ugly from the outset, it will be difficult for people to even check the details. It has to appeal to all the senses.

Both of you are healthy eaters. Do you ever have cheat days?

Iman: I am trying to be a conscious eater. There is no diet, but it is just that when I am eating, I think, 'it tastes good but is it good for my health?' I hate gaining weight because of the clothes, really.

Luchie: I am going back to not cheating any more. I have cheated for a long time.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 4:42 AM
COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Co Chocolat

Started: 2017

Founders: Iman and Luchie Suguitan

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Food

Funding: $1 million-plus

Investors: Fahad bin Juma, self-funding, family and friends