After many years in the shadow of its Latin American competitors, the Colombian fruit-export sector is starting to make giant strides, driven by, among other factors, a combination of greater political stability, the opening up of new markets and the recent fall in value of the Colombian peso
As far as Europe is concerned, the free-trade agreement the European Union (EU) signed with the South American nation has been a determining factor not only for fruit exports, but for the whole agro-industrial sector in Colombia.
At least this is the view of María Claudia Lacouture, president of ProColombia, the organisation charged with promoting foreign investment, non-traditional exports and international tourism.
“The agreement with Colombia that has been in place since 2013 has become a tariff-free gateway for the 100 main products the country exports to the EU,” she says, highlighting in particular fresh bananas, exotic flowers, tuna and shrimp.
Referring specifically to Colombian fruit and the UK market, Lacouture emphasises the “tremendous potential” given the trend towards healthy eating amongst the British population, the UK government’s plans to bring about more balanced diets and its backing for children to eat more fruit and vegetables starting with snacks at nursery.
“Specifically to the UK, values of fruit exports from Colombia have risen from US$469,000 (£330,670) in 2012 to US$3.4 million in 2015,” she says.
As well as bananas and plantains, which together account for the lion’s share, granadilla, passion fruit, fresh and dried avocado, and Persian limes are other stand-out exports.
“It’s hard to find another country in the world that has the diversity, variety and richness in fruit, vegetable and salad production,” says Lacouture. “This was reflected in our participation at Fruit Logistica in Berlin this year, from which we have been able to notch up a few early victories thanks to the participation of 15 Colombian companies.”
When it comes to international impact, of all the products that best reflects Colombia’s potential is the avocado. According to official figures released by Colombia’s agriculture and rural development ministry, production in 2014 reached 339,939 tonnes across an area of 48,062 hectares (ha).
Colombia’s competitive advantage is that its diversity of production areas, altitudes and varieties allow it produce year round. Colombia grows three main cultivars of avocado: Hass, Lorena and what Colombians call criollo – essentially an indigenous avocado for the local marketplace. It is, of course, Hass that has the most export potential.
“The EU is the second-largest Hass importer in the world with a value of US$1.172 billion (£830m) in 2014,” says Lacouture. “But that year Colombia only had a 0.3% share of the market.”
Recently, Marks & Spencer awarded the Cartama Group – one of the main avocado growers in Colombia – its annual best global quality award, picking out the firm from some 300 of its overseas suppliers.
Although in percentage terms Colombia’s share of the EU market is still very small, growth has been significant. In 2010 sendings were barely worth US$100,000. By 2015, this figure had risen to US$8.9m; an increase of 8,000%, according to Colombia’s government department for national statistics.
Faced with the need to represent the product’s interests at national and international level, the sector has come together and formed a corporation of Hass producers and exporters, called CorpoHass.
Its executive director Juan David Mondragón Múnera confirms to Produce Business UK that Hass from Colombia has a great future as the supply chain is only just getting going. “We have 12,000ha under Hass, but acreage is growing at a rate of 10-15% a year,” he says. “Some 55% are young plantings or orchards that have not yet reached adequate technical specifications.
“As our confidence in this sector, our knowledge of the crop and our experience as agro-exporters grows, and as we achieve international certifications, this formerly dormant agro-industry will teach us some interesting lessons.”
Mondragón also highlights that a year ago the sector shipped 186 containers overseas, whereas this season it expects that figure to rise to 440. “We have gone from a turnover of US$6.6m to US$16.2m,” he says.
“We think by 2020, that will reach US$120m – a large part of which will be destined for the EU and definitely an important fraction to the UK, which values the quality of our fruit. In the UK we have been carving out a niche in the September-April window with regular deliveries, which coupled with our quality, we believe truly differentiates our offer.”
CorpoHass’s executive director is also enthusiastic about changes in his country that are fuelling the hopes of the whole agriculture sector.
“Colombia has been a country at war for more than 50 years,” says Mondragón. “This has made engaging in agriculture or the agro-industry complicated. Since 2002, there has been more investment in the country and all producers are starting to gain in confidence. We have been able to start travelling internally within Colombia and also overseas to import ideas from elsewhere and apply them to our own conditions.”
His vision of the future is very positive. “There is a feeling that this absurd war will scale right down to a minimal level. Producers understand they have to respect labour conditions to develop the regions and, in reality, a number of factors have come together, such as the favourable exchange rate, to create more auspicious conditions for exporters.”
María Claudia Lacouture shares this vision too, particularly with regard to the UK marketplace for exotics. “Fruits such as carambola or starfruit, feijoa or pineapple guava, granadilla, tomatillo, guava, dragonfruit, pepino or melon pear, pineapple and peach palm fruit are eaten on a daily basis as snacks or in UK dining rooms,” she says. “They provide British consumers not only with the vitamins and enzymes that are scarce in other fruits, but also a taste experience and enjoyment.”
Lacouture compares this experience to the magical realism made famous by the late Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez: “For example, tasting a sapote or a guava can transport you to one of the passages of his books where reality is stranger than fiction, as highlighted in the motto for our international tourism campaign: Colombia – Is Magical Realism.”