Central America is already well-known on the global market for its traditional offer of bananas, mangoes, melons, pineapples and limes, as well as Guatemala’s now established line of blackberries, green beans, sugar snaps and snow peas. But what about the lesser well-known items the region has been quietly developing in recent years, and the gaps in UK market supply that could be filled by Central American produce? Produce Business UK speaks with the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) and The Foundation for Investment and Development of Exports in Honduras (FIDE) to learn more
“Central America [comprising Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama] has a very interesting offer for certain products that are already commonly known,” begins Arno van der Maden, who coaches the 16 exporters involved in CBI’s Central American Agro Food Export Programme.
“For these products Central America can serve as a really good alternative or complementary source for the UK. What the region is less well-known for are products such as rambutan, sweet potatoes and Asian vegetables, like okra.”
Van der Maden says buyers should view Central America as an entire sourcing region rather than as individual countries. During one trip he points out that buyers could travel the entire length of the region, from Panama due north to Guatemala, and cover various products like mangoes, pineapples, watermelons and rambutan, depending on what they require.
“In terms of newer products, it’s not only sweet potatoes from Honduras or rambutan from Guatemala and Honduras. The whole region has a lot to offer. You don’t have to go all the way to Guatemala just to look at rambutan; you can source other fruits too, or you can fly an hour to Costa Rica to visit a pineapple grower. That’s a plus for buyers.”
Emerging Honduran offer
Honduras – long recognised as a major commercial producer of bananas and melons – is the main country within Central America where most new product development is taking place, explains Liliana Sánchez, the divisional director for export promotions at FIDE, which serves as CBI’s local partner in Honduras.
“In Honduras we have some products that in the minds of buyers and consumers are traditionally from South East Asia, like rambutan,” she explains. “But Honduras has developed a very high quality rambutan that is starting to be exported now to Europe.
“The same is happening with okra. It’s a product that’s very much appreciated among certain ethnic groups, such as Asian or Middle Eastern communities. And now Honduras is starting to develop different kinds of okra. We’re already exporting the Indian and American varieties.
Another line Honduras is developing is different types of squash, like butternut. Often, Sánchez says the country’s window of production is at a time when there’s a gap in the UK market – when Spain ends, for example.
Meanwhile, Honduras has been working on its sweet potato offer for many years, and is starting to export to Europe more and more. Like okra, production is year-round, only dipping slightly during the European summer months of July and August.
“These are products where Honduras is not the top-of-mind for buyers,” Sánchez points out. “But our clients in the USA and Canada are seeing the value in the quality and reliability offered by the Honduran companies that can supply these products. For the UK, one of the interesting points is that we can fill off-season windows too.”
Van der Maden notes that the same recognition is true for Honduran rambutan, thanks to growers planting the the improved Hawaiian variety and efforts made to step up certification compliance. This year, he reveals that one company involved in CBI’s programme – Frutas Exóticas from Honduras – has supplied some European supermarkets, in addition to the typical route to market via ethnic wholesalers.
“Honduran rambutan is different to the Asian varieties,” he claims. “It’s juicier, there’s more flesh inside and the seed doesn't stick to the flesh. These are the different characteristics that make it really nice to eat. All the rambutan is GlobalGAP-certified too, and it complies with the requirements of European supermarkets as far as MRLs [maximum pesticide residue levels] are concerned. Honduran rambutan also comes on stream later than Guatemala – towards the end of the year in October, November and December.”
Niches for Guatemalan mangoes and limes
There are also certain gains for UK buyers to make with Guatemalan mangoes and limes, given that the country can plug specific gaps in current availability. In terms of mangoes, Guatemala has production when Peru is finishing at a time when buyers are looking for different suppliers.
Importantly, Van der Maden reveals that planted varieties in Guatemala are slowing shifting to suit the UK consumer’s taste buds. “Guatemala has always been very focused on the US market, so its mango production is largely Tommy Atkins, which are more fibrous and Europeans don’t like the fibres in mangoes,” he says.
“Kent and Keitt are the commercial varieties preferred for the fresh and processing market in the UK. There’s very little available at the moment in Guatemala because growers are still changing their varieties.”
One of the CBI programme participants – Reliable Fruits – is a case in point. This year, the grower-exporter will have a small volume of new varieties to offer but not enough for full containers. Nonetheless, greater volume is expected from the firm and others in the future.
When it comes to limes, Van der Maden says Guatemala can offer a quality supply for UK buyers, and not just when Mexico and Brazil are short. Already, two CBI programme participants are exporting limes to Europe, while one small-to-medium enterprise – Ixin Quesal – will introduce its limes to the UK this year.
However, Van der Maden is quick to add that the lime market in the UK can be difficult for Guatemala because prices depend heavily on Mexico and Brazil’s lime offer. “If their supply is low, Guatemala can get good prices,” notes Van der Maden. “Otherwise, the prices drop really fast. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to predict how the market will behave because it’s not stable.”
This year at least, Van der Maden says the projection is for consumption to continue to increase as consumers shift from using lemons to limes in products like drinks. And, with the UEFA European football championship taking place this year, lime consumption is tipped to increase even further.
Even so, for now Guatemala remains a “relatively small player” on the European lime market, despite its ability to offer quality and volume. “Guatemala still exports even if Brazil and Mexico are in the market but the volume is much lower,” Van der Maden explains. “For example, Brazil might do 30-40 containers a week, while Guatemala maybe does 3-5 containers."
To meet and do business with the fruit and vegetable companies involved in CBI’s Central America programme, buyers can connect with eight of the exporters at the London Produce Show and Conference (LPS16) on June 8-10.
“Those who visited in 2015 <see below> will return, except Pyflor and Agrícola Tierra Nueva,” Van der Maden confirms. “A new company is also coming – the baby banana (bananito) supplier Caisa from Guatemala.
“We’re taking a detour to France on the Monday and Tuesday (June 6-7) to visit the wholesale market in Paris. Then we’ll cross over to London for the show, and on the Friday we’ll visit UK importers and wholesalers, and maybe some production in the UK too.”
Central American suppliers set to attend LPS16 Guatemala
APAC.PNT Blackberries, snow peas, sugar snaps, French beans
Ixin Quesal Limes
Latin Food Fresh & Frozen Snow peas, mini vegetables, chia, salad toppings, HPP juices
Reliable Fruits Avocados, rambutan, mangoes, pineapples, limes
Vedex Snow peas, sugar snaps, French beans
Caisa Baby bananas (bananitos)