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Young entrepreneur sees chocolate-coated dream come true

By ALYWIN CHEW | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-20 07:44

Young entrepreneur sees chocolate-coated dream come true

Mo Xuefeng, general manager of Aficion. China Daily

Following his studies in the United States, Mo Xuefeng could have taken over his father's successful packaging business, but his love of chocolate compelled him to do otherwise.

He also knew that there was immense business potential for the product in China. According to Euromonitor, Chinese people eat an average of just 100 grams of chocolate per year. By contrast, Germans eat about 90 times more.

However, Mo, who graduated from Boston University with a master's in finance, wanted to do more than just sell chocolates; instead, he envisioned building an immersive experience around it so people will better appreciate the sweet treat.

"Chocolates can help improve relationships between friends, family and lovers. I wanted the business to focus on couples and young families with kids. We want to create more opportunities for children to have fun with their parents in the name of chocolate," said Mo, 32.

To achieve this goal, he decided to open a chocolate factory in his home county of Jiashan, where people can learn about the history of chocolate and the manufacturing process. As the general manager, he decided to call the company Aficion, a Latin word that means "affection" or "love".

In 2015, its first year in operation, the facility attracted about 500,000 people, but last year, visitor numbers ballooned to around 700,000. Sales, both in retail outlets and among visitors to the factory, hit 150 million yuan ($22 million).

Last year, Aficion also started selling its chocolates in Taiwan. Mo said the company is planning to export its goods to countries in the Middle East and to the United States in the near future.

Mo pointed to several reasons behind Aficion's ability to hit the ground running. One of them is the strong support given by the Jiashan government.

"The local authorities really care about those from the younger generation looking to start their own businesses, so they're quick to provide platforms for us to learn, such as organizing trips to other cities for people like myself to gain insights from more seasoned entrepreneurs," Mo said.

Another major factor in Aficion's success is its dedication to product quality. To ensure that its chocolates can rival the best in the global market, Mo sources ingredients from around the world and set up the Aficion-Cote d' Ivoire cocoa planting base in April last year to ensure a steady supply of quality cocoa. The company has also invested in high-end manufacturing equipment from Switzerland.

In addition, Mo appointed Dany Deraymaeker, an experienced Belgian chocolate master, as his right-hand man.

Deraymaeker is no stranger to the Chinese market, having previously worked at a chocolate factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, for several years. Before he arrived in China, the 44 year old made chocolates for world-renowned Belgian brand Godiva. His creations have even been served to the Belgian royal family.

"Chinese consumers aren't big fans of bitterness, so we've designed our products to suit this preference. Even the dark chocolates we sell in China are noticeably sweeter than those you would get elsewhere," Deraymaeker said, with regard to Aficion's localization efforts.

"Aficion uses top-notch ingredients from all over the world. Quality is at the heart of our operations and I am proud to say that the chocolates we make here are as good as those you would find in Europe."

Visitors to Aficion's factory start their journey in a 156-meter-long gallery where they can view the production process before making their way to other exhibition zones detailing the history of chocolate and the company. The tour culminates in a retail zone that features nearly 100 types of chocolates.

However, Mo is determined to infuse even more color into the consumer experience. By the end of 2018, the factory will be expanded to include a host of other facilities, including an amusement park, a hotel and a chocolate academy.

"Chocolate is a common language that transcends all types of boundaries. We will be looking to export our chocolates to more overseas locations in the future. We are also looking to create more products that feature a Chinese story and flavor," he said.

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