MIA - which stands for Made in Africa - was recently co-created by Brett Beach, who previously co-founded Madagascan chocolate firm Madécasse.
Beach was Madécasse's co-CEO from 2008 to 2016, before he left to set up MIA brand owner KuanZa Ltd last year.
MIA is a London-based social enterprise that sources Criollo, Amelonado and Trinitario cocoa from farmers in the Sambirano Valley of northwest Madagascar.
Manufacturing at origin
A contract manufacturer near the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo with 25 full-time employees produces the brand.
Speaking to ConfectioneryNews, Beach said: "If you look at Africa, it is phenomenal how many resources there are and yet how little production there is.
"All the sub-Saharan countries put together, excluding South Africa, are equivalent to the economy of the Netherlands and that's in a large part because they don’t trade in value-added products."
Drying and fermenting on the farm
According to Beach, MIA's cocoa is fermented by smallholders themselves in baskets - rather than at a third-party operated collection center.
"This changes the game because up to now, 80% of the cocoa from Madagascar comes from smallholder farmers who are not fermenting and drying.
“Part of the problem is they don’t have the market to sell that type of cocoa - people collect it from them fresh and collectors will do that themselves,” he said.
Beach said MIA’s sourcing model helps farmers garner additional income and enhances Madagascar’s reputation as a quality cocoa producer.
Fine flavor from Madagascar
The MIA founder said fine flavor cocoa of the Trinitario and Criollo varieties survived on the island when Europeans brought the crop to Africa in the 19th century, wheres these tree types were largely wiped out on mainland Africa by disease and replaced with Forestero trees, producing only standard beans.
Beach said this gives Madagascar a unique positioning in African cocoa.
Today, 100% of Madagascar’s exports are classed as fine flavor by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO). The country produces around 5,000 to 6,000 metrics tons of cocoa beans annually, according to Beach.
Breaking into the metropolis: London calling
MIA hopes to compete in the UK and Europe against other super premium brands such as Willie's Cacao and Valrhona.
It is concentrating on listings in London, before branching out to other parts of the UK, then to Northern Europe and finally the US by the end of this year.
“We really want to make things happen in London,” said Beach. “That metropolis is central to the brand.”
MIA is working Cocoa Runners in the UK, which sells to cafés and online. The brand also has distributors in Germany and the Netherlands and recently secured its first order from Australia.
UK’s chocolate aisles go upmarket
"The positioning of MIA is as a specialty brand, but it doesn’t mean we can never go into a multiple. But it does mean our core audience is consumers shopping for something a bit special,” said Beach.
The entrepreneur said UK chocolate aisles have started to stock more super-premium ranges in recent years.
"Sainsbury's took a step and went with (tablet) chocolates from £2 to £3 ($2.85 to $4.28) in the last couple of years, so I think it's only a matter of time before other big stores start to look to higher quality products."
Beach added Waitrose recently introduced single origin bars, which is helping grow consumer awareness of cocoa flavor and origins.
But he said it was likely to take three to five years for UK mass-market stores to stock ultra-premium chocolate as a norm.
Beach hopes to develop the MIA concept of producing food at source in Africa to other geographies and in different categories.
“Ethiopia has tremendous potential with honey and coffee. And in Ghana there's some chocolate production going on, so there's opportunities there,” he said, adding the company was also exploring single origin African-made nut butters.
"In the next five years, we want to expand our block chocolate line - both through new flavors and through gift packaging - and then go into some packaged chocolate ingredients such as baking chocolate, drinking chocolate and cocoa nibs,” continued Beach.