Seeking new buyers for Ecuadorian tropicals and exotics

Francisco Mena
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In this opinion post Francisco Mena, the UK trade commissioner for ProEcuador, details what the South American nation has to offer buyers who are looking to satisfy rising market demand for the non-traditional flavours offered by fruits like papayas, pineapples, pitahaya and physalis 

The UK is already very open to sourcing new products from different regions, such as a variety of different fresh fruits and vegetables, and buyers are starting to realise Ecuador’s quality of supply. Our non-traditional fruit exports are increasing, and it’s only a matter of time before the UK really finds out what Ecuador has to offer.

Ecuador can distinguish itself from other suppliers because of our quality, so there are a lot of opportunities in markets like the UK. We have a level of quality that would give us competitive and comparative advantages, and that’s not just in terms of our fruit offer but across all Ecuadorian agricultural products.

Because of our geographic location on the Equator we have a longer number of hours of sunshine and the intensity of that sunlight is much higher. When you put together the mix of different variables – the sunshine and volcanic soil, for instance – they make Ecuador unique as a supplier.

When people prepare dishes with Ecuadorian fruits they realise that difference. Thanks to our geographic position, the photosynthesis process is different for our plants. That doesn’t mean other products from around the world are not quality items – the point is Ecuador has the same or superior quality across many products.

Of course, we have to work on our production capacity in order to have a constant supply of these ingredients. There is a growing availability of land to expand fruit production in Ecuador. Some growers are shifting to different crops – whether that’s from bananas or other agricultural products – while others are starting anew. Mostly, it’s small farmers who are getting bigger.

Growers and suppliers are trying to diversify into other products too. They want to reduce the risk of their exports by not just supplying one product. For example, Ecuador is a big consumer of physalis (goldenberries) but in the last five to 10 years we’ve not exported that much. We are now looking for markets to supply.

Various exporters in Ecuador are starting in the tropical and/or exotic business. But I should point out that these aren’t new products – Ecuador has always grown them and we started exporting several years ago. In time though we’ll see better results for non-traditional exports from Ecuador.

Tropical and exotic potential

Our first target in the UK is the retail trade through the big supermarket chains, as well as the wholesalers and foodservice operators. Already there has been an increase in tropical and exotic fruit consumption in the UK. We are seeing these fruits more and more in the supermarkets and in the markets too. People are from different backgrounds or origins who are used to eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables are helping to drive this trend, while other consumers are just keen to try new products and flavours.  

In particular, there’s been an increase in the consumption of pineapples and papayas in the UK. There are more opportunities for exotics like pitahaya (dragonfruit) and physalis too. [Premium UK retailer Waitrose only this month predicted that goldenberries (physalis) will be among 2016 food trends.] The sales volumes are increasing, although they are still small.

Papayas and pineapples

While Ecuador supplies a small volume of papayas and pineapples in comparison to other countries, those exports represent +/- 53% of Ecuadorian supply, which is quite high. It’s a really interesting figure. In the UK there are one or two importers already receiving these products from Ecuador; working with one or two of the biggest plantations in Ecuador.

The papaya category is still really small in the UK though – you can’t compare it with bananas or even mangoes or pineapples. Although it’s still a small volume, it is increasing. From January to October 2015 versus the same period in 2014, Ecuador increased the value of its papaya exports to the UK by 16%, despite prices going down, and we increased the volume substantially by 12% to 1.8 tonnes. This is still a low number, of course.

In pineapples, which is a bigger category, Ecuador can’t claim to compare with Costa Rica, for example, but we want to grow. Our pineapple supply to the UK represents 14% of our exports, so we are important and our market share is increasing.

Thanks to Ecuador’s growing conditions, our pineapples and papayas have a longer shelf-life, which can help with the transit time to markets like the UK. Currently, almost 80-90% of Ecuadorian exports are shipped from the Port of Guayaquil and although the journey depends on the shipping line it’s normally between 20 and 30 days.

The availability of these two tropical fruits is almost all year-long in Ecuador – there’s no season because we’re located on the Equator, which means you can plant two crops all year long. Depending on the season, you might have bigger yields in one year, of course. But, in general, we have the advantage of offering a consistent supply all year-long from one supplier. Buyers can schedule arrivals every week, for instance.

In papayas, Ecuador can supply the Hawaiana, Tainung, Maradol varieties. These are grown in the Los Ríos and Santa Elena regions, which extend from Guayaquil out towards the Pacific Ocean. Papaya production is growing in Ecuador and there are some new hectares coming into production now.

For the pineapple trade, we have the Golden Sweet (MD2) variety. There is +/- 3,300ha under production in Santo Domingo and Los Ríos. Originally, most of Ecuador’s pineapple production was based in Los Ríos, which is not far from Guayaquil towards the south. Santo Domingo is in the north and has been a traditional growing area for all sorts of fruit and vegetables. It’s a really rich, fertile area – much like others in Ecuador.

Pitahaya and physalis

As for pitahaya, Ecuador is working with the yellow and red varieties. Again, we can produce all year-long, and there are over 200ha in production from the jungle provinces to the east in the Amazon. Pitahaya fruit sizes average at approximately 8-10cm for the yellow variety and 12cm for the red. Ecuador also has around 200ha of physalis (goldenberries) under production, comprising the Uviya variety (Physalis peruviana).

In every meeting attended by ProEcuador UK or whichever activity that we organise we try to spread the message that Ecuador produces quality ingredients. At the moment, we are focusing on introducing our ingredients and their high quality, and then we would like to promote the variety of Ecuador’s exquisite cuisine. When it comes to fresh produce and agricultural products, if a chef or anyone else wants to cook and present quality food, no matter what the cuisine they are serving, they should use Ecuadorian ingredients. 

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Read other articles in PBUK’s Sourcing Spotlight on Ecuador

Making healthy eating moreish with Ecuadorian chef María Ruth Moreno 

How Exquisite Ecuador is emphasising quality supply for niche UK buyers

Ecuadorian banana sector in buoyant mood over prospects for wider UK presence

UK tipped as potential growth market for Ecuadorian mangoes

The forgotten country: why Ecuadorian cuisine deserves its share of glory

Ecuador breathes sigh of relief as El Niño impact proves less severe than anticipated

Produce potential aplenty from Ecuador

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