Patience is a virtue when mastering China, Cosucra finds

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
Far East business is now getting “hot” for Belgian vegetable protein supplier Cosucra after five years of expanding in China.

Revenues are being bolstered as companies that are now beginning to formulate their own original foods in the premium niche. In the recent past these businesses would have imitated foreign products, said Michel Dewael, Cosucra’s commercial director.

China is the hottest country in terms of development for us. It is growing fast for premium opportunities, and the reasons for this are copious. Our customers have changed from looking at how they can copy to how they can create added value in the premium market. They adapt special recipes to their own local products and that was never the case five years ago​,” he said. 

Growing interest in health matters among the Chinese middle-class has been fuelling the market for premium foods. The government is also giving a great deal of support for premium foods development, which order their ingredients from companies like Cosucra.

Consciousness of healthy products is becoming one of the top issues in China,” said Dewael. “That’s good for us as we target those markets, and its very important to have the government behind you. If you don’t you cannot progress​.”

Though Cosucra’s Asian operation is directed from its Belgian head office with Stephane Liekendael, business manager for Asia, jetting east regularly, it has been finding more local agents to represent it in China and other markets, and hiring project development expertise.

Its ingredient development is conducted back in Belgium, where it operates application labs across a range of segments including dairy, beverage, confectionery and savoury.

So central and regional operations understand one another better, Cosucra’s Asian distributors are invited to Belgium two or three times a year to share knowledge. 

We use this time to learn about the market and also for cross-selling​,” Dewael said. “We can take expertise from, say, Thailand and mimic that for other countries. We have reached a level of trust with our partners and we are all on the same page​.”

Beyond China, Cosucra has high hopes for Indonesia, which was one of the first Asian markets it found it could grow because companies there were keen to investigate its chicory soluble fibre, Fibruline, its Pisane pea protein isolate, and Swelite pea fibre.

Fibruline, an inulin, is a soluble fibre obtained from chicory root, and is tasteless, odourless, soluble and easy to process. The latter two are non-GMO and gluten-free protein extracts from yellow pea.

India has proved difficult for Cosucra since it entered the market two years ago. As is often the case, the enforced inertia has been due to India’s Byzantine regulations.

It’s been two difficult years. If you look at inulin, which has been around as long as humans and occurs naturally in onions and garlic, [the FSSAI, India’s regulator] doesn’t recognise it as a regular ingredient​,” Dewael said, adding that his company was working through its local partner to find some accommodation.

Though it is a comparable-sized market to China, India does not hold the same potential for Cosucra due to the small segment of the population that is able or willing to buy premium foods.

To educate Indian consumers in terms of health foods is very difficult, and anyway they are already eating a lot of vegetables anyway. China’s growth is much faster for us​.” 

He says there is a “scale of momentum​” in China: “When one company decides to invest in a premium product using our ingredients, the market is huge. It is always mass-market because of the size of the middle-class​.”

China’s economic slowdown only appears to be affecting regular foods and not the premium segment, he adds. Cosucra’s business is being bolstered by customers that sell their products online, too.

Online sales are very important in China, and we have had a lot of new products launched onto online platforms​. 

If you look back five years, it was completely different. If you’ve missed the train, you’ve already missed out by three years. We invested money five years ago to scope out the market, and only now we are reaping the benefits for the first time​.”

There are still challenges, and Cosucra executives still aren’t sure if their brands’ names are put enough into the picture, especially when these ingredients are foreign to the market. 

Pea protein is quite new to the Asian market, which is more used to soy or whey protein, rather than chicory or pea. It takes time to educate customers on the different taste of pea protein in Japan and Korea, making business forecasts difficult. 

“We believe there is a future, but we don’t know if it will be two or three years​,” said Dewael.

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