Cocoa Association of Asia: exclusive interview

Over nearly two decades, the Cocoa Association of Asia has grown in scale and ambition, as its new chairman Alvin Lee explains exclusively to Neill Barston.

Having just taken the helm as chairman of the Cocoa Association of Asia (CAA), Alvin Lee believes that amid clear pandemic challenges, there’s hope ahead for the region’s market.

His notable sense of optimism is founded on gaining considerable insight into the sector during his career to date, as well as encouraging signs from the organisation’s most recent online forum placing the sector’s trading results under the microscope.

While the coronavirus pandemic impacted on the first half of 2020 in terms of key cocoa grindings, the Singapore-based CAA welcomed an improving pattern towards the end of last year, with the industry continuing to adapt to evolving conditions.

As Lee, who also leads Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate’s trading, risk management and sourcing within the Asia-Pacific region, explains, his association includes a wealth of experienced businesses within the sector, who are playing their part in engaging with the sector as it sets about a pattern of recovery, as he revealed in our latest exclusive video interview.

Its 35-strong membership includes the likes of Mars, Nestle and Barry Callebaut, Mondelez and Touton, through to Cargill and Olam, with the group’s forum and networking capabilities proving invaluable at a time of notable industry tests. Perhaps chief among these remains the pressure on global cocoa prices resulting from pandemic-related market turbulence creating market uncertainties.

Despite such factors, Lee says that it’s an honour to be taking on the challenges of leading the CAA, as its membership and profile continue to grow in the region.
Enthusing about its development, he feels it has come a long way since its inception at the end of 2003 regarding its focus and scope, which is working towards enhancing opportunities for training and education opportunities for its engaged membership.

It also aims to be a centre for processing sector data, as well as providing pricing information that are significant matters for those operating in an industry that is under close scrutiny traded on global stock markets.

Noting the progress made by his predecessor, Richard Fahey, of Barry Callebaut, he says that on re-joining the association back in 2015, it was a question of collectively ‘turbo charging’ its agenda to deliver the most for the businesses in its community.
“Cocoa has given me so much in my life and my career, it’s a way of giving back with this role, comments the chairman, who admits the cocoa sector has faced his challenges in the region in terms of volumes of production, yet there remains potential for growth.

“For the next few years in post, I would like to see through some of the projects being delivered that have previously been put forward. I have prided myself as being someone who is fairly vocal and active in the cocoa community, and I have involved myself with planning new initiatives within the sector.

“I am honoured my peers have elected me, and I am really proud as this is a great industry out here. It is a close-knit bunch of peers and friends, and I’m delighted to be doing this.

“It’s obviously different from my day job, and challenges me constantly to think about broader industry issues and to wear different hats and to be more inclusive,” notes the sector specialist who says his post offers a prime opportunity to connect with the sector.

As for his own development, the Singapore-based executive explains that cocoa and wider food sector have been central to his career.

Before joining Cargill in early 2015, he had handled regional dairy sourcing and risk management responsibilities for major sector business Kerry Ingredients.

Previously, he had also worked for ADM Cocoa in both Singapore and the United States in a variety of trading and sourcing roles that further offered key industry experience.

For his present position at Cargill, in addition to management of cocoa and chocolate operations, he is also responsible for product line and margin management of the group’s state-of-the-art cocoa processing facilities in Gresik, Indonesia.

Pandemic response

As regards the wider issue of the pandemic, the association produced a number of key responses.

This included working with its membership to deliver $28,000 worth of chocolate to support those working in frontline services tackling covid-19, as well as backing association members in setting up a successful webinar event to exchange ideas in managing the covid crisis.

Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, Lee adds: “I think a large part of the chocolate and cocoa space gets a lot of its customer base from travelling and entertainment, which is a large contributor, but a huge swathe of that sector was shut down literally overnight. We have had all kinds of curveballs thrown at us.

“In Malaysia and Singapore there have been shutdowns and circuit breakers for the pandemic. So, countries have strived to keep supply chains going so people can continue to enjoy their favourite products – chocolate is an affordable luxury, and in Asia a huge portion of cocoa goes into food staples like powdered beverages, biscuits, and milk.

“It has been very challenging, but our membership has fought to keep going. I am cautiously optimistic though – it’s dependent on the vaccine roll-out and the efficacy of that. It won’t be an even recovery, but there are bright shoots,” he asserts, noting that there remain concerns within the region.

However, examining its varied markets, he says that the CAA is cautiously optimistic that demand will recover moving through the year.

In his view, Singapore’s government has been ‘pretty sharp’ in its handling of the pandemic, with the island nation’s government now supporting its work through Enterprise Singapore.

With such formal backing and some of the industry’s most notable businesses amid its ranks, the association is demonstrating a strong sense of resilience under its new chairman, as it prepares to host its next physical conference event as a live show this November.


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