According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Colombia is the Latin American country with the third highest number of hectares cultivated with fruit trees. This makes the country one of the 'world's biggest pantries'. As such, entrepreneurs of the fruit and vegetable sector from this country have taken advantage of this to showcase their exotic fruits in Europe and the United States.
According to entrepreneurs from this sector, such as John Franco, the manager of Frutas Comerciales, the future of the Colombian fruits lies abroad. 80% of his company's production is shipped to other countries because, as he says, "it is not profitable to sell exotic fruits for domestic consumption." The markets abroad pays five to six times more for the product than the local market.
According to estimates from Colombia's Fruit and Vegetable Association (Asohofrucol), Colombia's per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables is below the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Colombians eat a daily average of only 200 grams of these foods. Meanwhile, the value of fruit exports is on the rise.
According to estimates by ProColombia, exports of fresh fruit during 2016, totaled 115.6 million dollars. That is 43% more than in 2015. This number does not include bananas, a product that has traditionally fared well in the international market, and of which the country has exported more than 1,690,000 tons in the last 12 years, according to the Association of Banana producers of Magdalena and La Guajira (Asbama).
That's why the strategy, not only of ProColombia and the Ministry of Commerce, but also of guilds, such as Asohofrucol, has been to promote the opening of markets for the so-called exotic fruits, which mostly occur in the tropics. Alvaro Palacio, manager of the guild, said that there are seven fruits prioritized in their productive transformation program.
This fruits include Tahiti lemon, coconut, table mango, strawberry, hass avocado, papaya and pineapple, among others. However, according to Franco, the greatest opportunities for growth are also in the gulupa, pomegranate, and cape gooseberries, as these products exports are already taking a lot of force, mainly in Europe, as well as all kinds of wild berries that haven't been exploited for these markets yet.
And the data shows these commercial leaderships. Avocados lead the export rankings with sales profits of 20 million dollars in 2016, followed by the gulupas with 14.9 million, and the cape gooseberries with 13.7 million. These fruits, as well as the lemon, pineapple, orange, granadilla, mango and pitahaya, are mainly sent to the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Spain.
Even though the value of the horticultural production has increased in recent years from 5.6 trillion pesos in 2013 to 7.2 trillion in 2016 and the volume produced increased by 45% in the last year, Palacio considers that "we will only have all the opportunities for local and international markets if we solve inconveniences such as specialized technical assistance."
This, according to the trade union leader, because the National Fund for Horticultural Development needs to obtain more resources than the ones it raises to finance development and research in the sector. "We are collecting very little, approximately, 17 billion pesos annually because this is a sector with a high informality," Palacio said.
The resources are invested mainly in technical assistance, marketing support, research, technology transfer, and training for producers. But the key point is to get personalized technical assistance by type of crop. Frutas Comerciales, for example, has an agronomist in charge of each farm, and 14 specialized people in the commercial area.
The expectation of the guild is to export the Colombian fruits to more countries. Currently they are shipped to 42 destinations. The also expect to increase the acreage to 110,000 hectares cultivated with the seven products prioritized so as to increase exports to 637,000 tons.
The secret to export is in the packaging
A mango produced in Santa Marta (Magdalena) takes three days to reach a market in Paris. The quality of most exotic fruits, which are often very perishable, is affected by dehydration, accelerated maturation, and mistreatment. These factors are mitigated thanks to specially developed packages to avoid losses in the fruit's journey. Many companies, after experimenting and testing, hire industrial designers who develop packages designed taking into account the characteristics of the product, the travel duration, climatic conditions, and the shape of fruits.
A low use of toxics, key to opening more markets
International buyers are interested in acquiring good quality exotic products, but they are also increasingly thinking more and more about their health. Thus, reducing the use of toxic products to combat fungi, insects and diseases in the crop has become a challenge for the entire fruit and vegetable chain. This consumption trend mainly takes place in Europe, where authorities won't allow the entry of products with a high content of pesticides. It becomes a call for farmers, who will improve their income and gain access to more markets once they find new and better alternatives to control pests.