Egypt has a long and reputable history of supplying the UK with fresh produce such as citrus and table grapes. On the back of that success the nation is increasingly flexing its production muscle with lines like berries and the introduction of new fruits to its export basket, such as avocados, mangoes and exotics. Produce Business UK catches up with one of Egypt’s star suppliers PICO Modern Agriculture Company to discover what the Middle Eastern nation has in store for UK produce buyers
Supplying 45% of its output to the UK alone – ahead of markets including the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Russia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and South Africa – PICO is a self-proclaimed market leader and trendsetter in Egypt; committed to introducing new varieties, the latest agricultural techniques, and up-to-date management systems across Egypt.
“PICO takes pride in always being at the forefront of Egyptian producers in terms of introducing new crops and exciting varieties that are in demand in our export markets,” comments business development manager Heike Hagenguth. “We started to grow a range of exotics many years ago, e.g. pomegranates, mangoes, avocados and lychees, and we found they performed successfully in the local market.”
Learning from that success, PICO is now entering its second season of exporting avocados to the UK, and has just got under its belt an inaugural campaign with mangoes. Although neither fruit is a typical produce export item for Egypt, Hagenguth says there is clear potential to further the trade.
“Both products are a new addition to Egypt’s export basket, and while we already have high demand for both avocados and mangoes locally and in the GCC [the countries represented by the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates], we also see windows of opportunities for export, and to strengthen our presence in the UK market with more diversified product.”
Hagenguth says the new product lines benefit from Egypt’s growing reputation as a wide-ranging fresh produce supplier. At the most recent Fruit Logistica trade show in Berlin, Germany, where Egypt participated as partner country, she claims Egypt attracted a lot of positive attention.
“Egypt was able to underline its recognition as the garden of Europe with unique market windows and pinpoint the level of quality and certifications that we can deliver,” she explains.
For avocados and mangoes specifically, Hagenguth points out that by selecting a range of early and late varieties Egypt can offer a long window of availability for UK buyers and other markets.
“We are excited about our successful shipments of avocados to the UK for the second season when they made it onto the UK supermarket shelves, including Marks and Spencer. Moreover, we exported mangoes to the UK for the first time. We see a growing demand for both products in the UK.”
Broadening the basket further
PICO is one of Egypt’s leading fresh produce exporters and benefits from decades of experience since it started out as a family-run enterprise when the Diab Agriculture Company began cultivating crops in the 1930s.
With five farms located across 7,000 acres in the Delta region, PICO’s fruit basket includes strawberries, stonefruit and table grapes, as well as citrus, mangoes, avocados and bananas.
Aside from mangoes and avocados, other new products include pomegranates and lychees. Shortly, the firm is looking forward to trial shipments to the UK of lychees on the back of successful sales so far in Egypt, Asia and the GCC.
Benefitting from berry breeding
At the same time as it broadens its produce offer, PICO is continuing to expand its berry horizons with a number of new varietal prospects in store for UK buyers concerning strawberries, as well as trial crops of blackberries and raspberries.
“We’re about to complete another successful season of strawberry deliveries [by air] to the UK,” Hagenguth reveals. “Spanish strawberries arrived unusually early this year, however we have demonstrated once more that Egyptian strawberries can be supplied into March.”
To sustain its strawberry business, PICO is evolving its offer with new varieties that lengthen Egypt’s season and appeal to high-end markets like the UK. With that in mind, the group is working with breeders from all over the world, including the US, the UK, Israel and Spain.
“While prices are rising along with costs, we are improving our competitiveness through new varieties and efficient production to maintain or even achieve a better position as a worldwide strawberry exporter,” Hagenguth says. “New varieties and production technologies are making it possible for us to extend the season, increase yields and grow interesting new varieties.”
Together with researchers, PICO is looking for new varieties and production techniques for strawberries that will be suitable for marketing on both the fresh and the processed markets. In particular, the grower-exporter is focusing on good eating qualities, sugars, colour and firmness, and fruit that travels well to export markets.
“We are working closely with the Ekland Marketing Company (EMOCAL) and the University of Florida on several varieties,” reveals Hagenguth. “The Redeva trials [from the breeding and development division of Total Berry], which is now associated with Plant Sciences, will deliver results from 2017 onwards. And we are growing potential varieties from C.I.V., Planasa and FNM and others. Plus, we are also investigating partnership in a breeding programme.”
To date, PICO’s new commercial strawberry varieties include the Ekland varieties – Winter Star, Fortuna and Elyana – and the Redeva varieties, such as Red Merlin. Other strawberries varieties are on trial too, and the firm is expanding its blackberry production.
For the last two years PICO has already successfully produced blackberries and is looking forward to expanding this line with newer varieties in the future. In addition, the group is currently trialling some raspberries and plans to test blueberry production with low-chill varieties that match growing conditions in Egypt.
To manage its varietal programme, PICO operates trial plots on its strawberry farm, Om Saber, in the Delta. There, the firm evaluates quality, productivity, availability and extended postharvest shelf-life, plus improved characteristics like colour and flavour, as well as the market potential of each variety for the fresh, catering and processed markets.
Besides open field production, PICO is growing berries in substrate, and produces daughter plants from its hanging production as well as from its table top production in greenhouses. The firm has its own varietal team and nurseries.
“We have been successful in maintaining our leadership with varieties of market success,” claims Hagenguth. “Over the years we have changed more than 25 varieties towards more successful varieties.
“Egypt was once a net importer of strawberries and now we’re a net exporter, ranking among the top five strawberry-exporting countries. In fact, PICO’s founder Dr Kamel Diab was the first to introduce strawberries for commercial production in Egypt.”
Aside from exciting progress with newer crops, PICO remains strong in table grapes and stonefruit, thanks largely to its partnership with US-based breeder Sun World. The firm takes pride in being the first Egyptian grower to become a Sun World licensee.
“Our relationship with Sun World is very strong – being the first licensee in the country – and we share common interests to market their fruits to key markets,” Hagenguth explains. “We produce both stonefruit and grape varieties from Sun World.”
Among its latest Sun Worl grape offerings are Sable, Midnight Beauty and Red Superior, which are being produced to extend the season earlier and later. In the future, PICO hopes to benefit from Egypt’s upcoming membership of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties and Plants (UPOV) too.
“This will definitely be of great help,” notes Hagenguth. “It will make it easier to register and protect varieties in Egypt and will give breeders the confidence that Egypt is a market to trust and deal with. With this [association], new varieties can come to Egypt much earlier than in the past.”
L:R: Alaa Diab, PICO Chairman; Hatem El Ezzawy, Managing Director; and Gamal El Sayes, Operations Manager
Read other articles in our Sourcing Spotlight on Egypt