Recognising a shortage in the UK’s raspberry supply, Belco claims to have become the first Egyptian grower and exporter of the popular berry after beginning its first trial consignments to a leading British retailer. Produce Business UK speaks exclusively with the supermarket-focused supplier to learn more about the deal and discover what else is on the cards for UK buyers
Like many Egyptian grower-exporters, Belco has long focused on supplying the majority of its premium fresh fruit and vegetable range to the UK since it first began trading on these shores in 1993. But thanks to the support of its own research and development department, the firm is successfully widening that product basket, introducing new items and varieties every year – most recently raspberries and garlic.
“At Belco we constantly strive to grow premium quality fresh produce in parallel to enlarging our export basket yearly,” Amr El Beltagy, business development manager at Belco, tells PBUK.
“We have managed to add two crops last year – raspberries and garlic – and we’ll have more products next year. We are also doing trials of several varieties of fruits and vegetables. For every crop [we produce] every year we try certain new varieties that we think have potential.”
By working together with a Spanish soft fruit breeder last year Belco introduced to Egypt a raspberry variety called Adelita, which is suited to local growing conditions. El Beltagy says this is a new cultivar that’s well-known for its good eating quality, shelf-life and preference in the UK and Europe.
“In recent years there was no raspberry variety that could be grown under the Egyptian climate,” he points out. “But this new variety makes it possible for the plant to develop without a problem in warm weather like we have in Egypt. The variety we’ve chosen has proven that it works well under our conditions.”
Belco has planted 12 acres and is planning to expand that area next year. Harvesting starts in December but the duration of the season and yields are undefined at the moment. Since it’s a commercial trial, this year’s overall volume will not be significant. All supply will be air freighted from Cairo to London for a UK retailer, with a door-to-door transit time of roughly one-and-a-half days.
“There’s a question mark over when the season will run to as this variety produces for a few months, then stops, before producing again for a few more months,” El Beltagy explains. “It’s producing now with no problems. It’s been getting an excellent response from customers.”
The early availability of raspberries from Egypt will help to plug some shortages on the UK retail market, according to El Beltagy. “What we’ve seen from this season is there wasn’t enough [raspberries],” he says. “There will be some competition – the market is not ours alone as there are other countries that supply raspberries at the same time. But the results are rewarding and we are competing and proving ourselves.”
Further expanding the range
Belco is already one of biggest exporters of table grapes to the UK and Europe, and a leader in spring onions and green beans. Every year the group ships around 2,500 tonnes of grapes to the UK, on top of at least 1,000t-1,500t of spring onions, plus the same for green beans.
Overall, Belco’s range includes a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and salads, including: grapes, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, mangoes, green beans, spring onions, garlic, mangetout and sugar snaps, chillies and bell peppers, Chinese cabbage and iceberg lettuce. But there is much more to be added.
“The UK has been a key market for the Egyptian fresh produce sector for a long time now, and it is definitely increasing yearly in specific crops like grapes,” El Beltagy says. “We export to UK around 5,000t of fruits and vegetables every year.
Belco specialises in supplying high quality products to retailers in various global markets. “This is our edge – this is what made our name,” points out El Beltagy. “We always produce Class 1 to high specs for high-end retailers. We’re working with most of the major supermarkets in the UK, like Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, M&S and Waitrose.”
Thanks to its unique supply window, Egypt has been long an attractive fresh produce supplier for Europe. “We still have the advantage of filling gaps before our competitors but I believe UK buyers are getting more interested in Egypt because more growers are keen on varietal development,” El Beltagy comments.
“The UK is a big market with lots of high-end retailers who can absorb big volumes as long as suppliers can guarantee ongoing development and superior quality. I believe the only difference which you can offer to any market, especially the UK, is an excellent quality crop, committed volumes and different varieties.”
Belco’s main objective therefore is to develop a wide range of varieties across all crops to strengthen its UK export programmes. To that end, the firm deals with most of the breeders in the US, South Africa and Spain and has managed over the past few years to plant different varieties in each crop, which is supporting its growth across the European continent.
With the agreement recently signed for Egypt to join the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties and Plants (UPOV), Belco and other suppliers will be able to continue developing new varieties with even more fervour.
“All Egyptian fresh produce growers and exporters will benefit from the UPOV agreement,” claims El Beltagy. “It will develop producers’ rights – it basically protects the varietal rights and the varietal ownership. It will definitely allow more breeders to cooperate with Egyptian growers too, since it will protect the intellectual property. This will encourage exports and will help us to send more volume and satisfy customer needs.”
In the past year Belco has planted new varieties of green beans that have higher yields, and is now working on new varieties of grapes and spring onions, plus several varieties of peaches and nectarines. “Innovation is very important to Belco and any company who wants to maintain a position in the market,” asserts El Beltagy. “We always change varieties to better ones for increased productivity, improved quality etc.
“Belco was one of few companies to introduce the Early Sweet white grape variety to Egypt. It’s harvested earlier than Sugraone, which, at the time, was the most popular grape for export. More companies have planted it now, of course, but there are still only a few companies have the license, and Belco is one of them.”
In addition to raspberries, this year Belco has added garlic to its offer. Although not yet available on the UK market, trial exports are underway during this first season with a major supermarket in the Netherlands.
“The variety is local to Egypt and it’s proving very successful,” El Beltagy reveals. “The season started just two weeks ago, so it’s very early days but so far it’s working very well with our Dutch client.”
With Egypt facing what El Beltagy describes a “future of stability and security” – as the political situation normalises and efforts get underway to strengthen the economy – Egyptian exporters like Belco believe they are well placed to continue serving the UK with a range of premium products.