Arno van der Maden, who coaches the 16 fruit and vegetable exporters involved in the Central American Agro Food Export Programme coordinated by the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), states his case for why Central America should be top-of-mind for buyers when it comes to sourcing off-season fruits and vegetables
Buyers need continuity to be successful in the global fresh produce marketplace today. Right now, if Africa doesn’t have French beans, for example, the UK market looks to Guatemala. But Guatemala should always be on their list – it should be at the top of buyers’ minds. Central America should not be viewed as just an alternative source.
Reliability is definitely one of Central America’s unique selling points. Buyers can count on producers to establish supply programmes. They’re used to working with Europeans and they’re professional. In my experience, it can be more difficult to work with Asian or African suppliers. There’s a certain way of doing business in Central America, which makes life easier.
Central America offers really good quality too. There’s a big focus on quality among the growers because they have to ship their produce a long way. Plus all the packaging and transport is taken care of to optimise product shelf-life.
Exporters are also willing to invest in certifications beyond the basics, like GlobalGAP, which is now required across all of Europe. The UK has several standards and norms on top of that, and Central America can comply with Tesco Nurture, SMETA-ETI or Field to Fork, for instance.
Growers are also taking into account the UK consumer when they plan their production. For instance, APAC.PNT – one of the participants in CBI’s Central American Agro Food Export Programme – produces blackberries (as well as sugar snaps and snow peas), and lately they've been working on their varieties in terms of taste, size and shelf-life.
Another of our other participants, Caisa, is working very specifically on its packaging. This firm is offering baby bananas and needs really specific packaging depending on whether the fruit is being shipped in boxes, clamshells or bags and considering the number of hands required per bag or box.
CBI has been working on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Central America too. But, in reality, it’s already being covered a lot by the companies and the throughout the areas in which they operate. They do a lot of work with the locals and within their communities. However, that is not always communicated to customers, or documented in figures or reports. CBI therefore is helping to make those efforts tangible; to get across that message.
Central American produce exports to the UK are currently focused on reefer containers, with the journey time lasting about 18-21 days. While it’s not the fastest connection, for products like sweet potatoes it’s not an issue. Okra and rambutan, meanwhile, are air-freighted – normally going directly to London or sometimes through France or Holland first.
Specifically for Guatemala, beans and sugar snaps can now benefit from a new, faster logistics route thanks to Streamlines/Seatrade, which has started a new service from Central America to Europe (France, Netherlands and the UK).
It offers very interesting transit times. It takes 16 days from Guatemala to Tilbury in the UK, so it’s a really good connection that opens a lot of doors for beans and peas. Of course, you can still ship Central American produce in containers but 21 days is really the maximum. Gaining a week is a big bonus. Initiatives like these will certainly help Guatemala to compete, especially on prices.
Poised for partnership
To get a firm footing on UK soil you need to be a preferred supplier and this is what Central America is eager to achieve. It has a lot to do with relationships – you have to prove that your fruit and packaging quality is good and consistent; you have to gain the trust of importer; and you have to be competitive on pricing. Then you can plan a year-round programme.
Doing business in Europe has a different appeal for Central American exporters. The UK normally pays slightly higher, fixed prices. By comparison, in the US – the region’s traditional market – a lot of imports are handled by brokers that aren’t necessarily interested your company. That’s putting it really bluntly, but that’s the perception of the market.
In the UK, however, Central American suppliers can work on a programme basis, with fixed prices. Plus the importers are more open to teaming up with companies to look at opportunities in areas like packaging and logistics. They’re keen to make a business out of it with the growers.
That’s really interesting for suppliers here in Central America. They don’t want to depend on one market either; and they have the flexibility to plan their availability, volumes and sizes. Often not all of your offer can be exported to a market like the UK but if you select the right fruit you can get really good price for that part of your production.
That’s why we’re trying to get more suppliers involved in CBI programmes, so they can travel to the market, be present in the country and attend events like the London Produce Show. That way, they can get real, hands-on experience in the market, get in contact with potential buyers, discover what the trends are and have a better idea of how they need to adapt to be successful in the UK.