The global sweet potato market is seeing mixed results, with some countries experiencing growth while others face challenges. In the Netherlands, the sweet potato season is going well with a trouble-free harvest from North Carolina, while in Germany, inflation is putting pressure on sales. Switzerland may have reached its import peak, while Italy's domestic sweet potato market continues to grow. In Spain, water scarcity is affecting the volumes and quality of the Spanish sweet potato crop. Meanwhile, in South Africa, sweet potato exports to the UK, Europe, and the Middle East are providing reliable revenue for some growers. This, as well as other factors, challenges the traditionally strong export position of North Carolina's sweet potatoes, as they face competition in Europe.
Netherlands: January to early May main sweet potato sales period
The sweet potato season is currently going well for a Dutch importer. "In North Carolina, we have had a trouble-free harvest. From North Carolina, we have enough product to cover the whole summer. The harvest does fall a lot coarser in terms of size."
At Easter, he says, sales were running well, but there was no outlier this year. "That was more the case other years. But we are not complaining about sales. The period from January to early May still remains the better months for sweet potato sales. Prices are at normal levels. Fortunately, the dollar exchange rate is slightly more favourable again. It is now back to around 1.10, but fixed costs are a lot higher."
According to the importer, the growth in the European sweet potato market is with the industry. "In the fresh market, the cake is now pretty well divided, but the industry is booming."
Germany: Inflation puts pressure on sweet potato sales
The Egyptian sweet potato season ended at the turn of the year this year. There was not only high volume from Egyptian, but also European cultivation. This caused increased price pressure for Egyptian product. Inflation has also affected the sweet potato in recent months: "Consumers are paying more attention to their spending and are more likely to abandon unnecessary products. The sweet potato simply does not have the status of a potato or apple and we see this reflected in demand. Overall, sales did not run nearly as smoothly as other years, especially in the winter."
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Germany is now the world's sixth largest importer. Whereas the import volume in 2010 was still 2,466 tons, by 2020 around 48,000 tons of sweet potatoes had already been imported.
Switzerland: Import peak may have been passed
Only 672,000 kilos were imported into Switzerland 10 years ago. Then the massive boom began: the peak in 2021 with 5,865,672 kilos. By then, however, the increase had slowed down somewhat and last year imports fell for the first time, but remain at a high level. The import peak may have been passed. At the same time, Swiss farmers are also focusing on the demanding crop, such as the Batati GmbH cooperative, which was founded eight years ago.
Italy: Sweet potato market continues to grow
In Italy, the sweet potato market is a niche that is growing strongly. For a couple of years now, a horticultural operator in northern Italy has been growing sweet potatoes in Veneto, in the Treviso area where there are some specialised growers. The cultivation is organic, but in reality the product is sold as conventional to avoid bureaucracy and higher prices. The product consists of two types: white sweet potato (the traditional one called 'American') and the red sweet potato. Availability is from September until March, thanks to cold storage. Prices are satisfactory and profitable for both the farmer and the rest of the chain. The operator packs sweet potatoes in smaller sizes, or opts for bulk sales with the larger sizes.
The marketing campaign for Calabrian sweet potatoes ended at the end of January. Now it is in the preparatory phase of field cultivation for the new season, which will be more challenging in view of the increase in the area. "We will, in fact, increase from last year's 35 hectares to almost 60. We expect a consistent improvement in terms of both production and quality,” they state from a consortium.
Egypt: Successful season due to struggling competitors
The season started with lower volumes than the previous one, due to reduced acreage. Overall, the sweet potato season has been a success. There has been a strong demand, especially from Western European countries, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Scandinavian countries. In these countries, sweet potatoes are considered a superfood. These markets demand mainly orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are the most produced varieties in Egypt, and the demand for Egyptian sweet potatoes has been high.
Eastern European countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as the Arabian Gulf countries, have shown lower than expected demand. In the case of the Gulf countries, this may be explained by the fact that the weather was warmer, while consumers prefer sweet potatoes when it is cold. The biggest competitors of Egypt in this sector are Spain and the United States, and because of the heavy rains there, volumes were lower and supply wasn't enough. Rain damages sweet potatoes and causes molds and cracks. Another obvious reason that has strengthened Egypt's position compared to Spain and the United States is the fact that costs in Egypt are lower.
Spain: Water scarcity affects volumes and quality of Spanish sweet potatoes
The sweet potato campaign has almost finished and only about 2% of the harvest is left in the chambers. Although prices have been around 15% higher this year, they have not compensated for the drop in production or the increase in costs, which has been between 30 and 35%. In addition the competition from Egypt is getting tougher as it overlaps more and more with the Spanish season.
The planting of the seedlings for the next season has started in the northwest region of Cádiz at a time of great uncertainty due to the drought, which coincides with the announcement of the significant reduction in irrigation allowances for the coming months due to part of the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation. However, unfortunately, water has been scarce for too many months in Andalusia and it already had a considerable impact on sweet potato production this season, affecting not only the yields but also the quality. The uncertainty in water availability overall in Spain and the bad revenues led the acreage fall about 40% last year compared to the average of the last 5 years and, it looks like this year the acreage will remain that low.
South Africa: Sweet potato exports positive
Sweet potato exports to the UK, Europe and the Middle East have emerged over the past few years as reliable revenue for a few growers.
“We’re finding a strong demand for sweet potatoes in Europe and the Middle East this season, and we think this trend will continue over the next few months, as the U.S. season draws to a close and clients require good quality alternatives,” says a sweet potato exporter.
“Last year there was an overhang of Egyptian and plenty of USA potatoes, but this year is very different.”
He notes that demand is good and since there is limited availability of the larger sizes, their clients are exploring options for the smaller sized material.
On the domestic market the average sweet potato price increased to R4.42 (0.22 euros) per kilogram. At the Johannesburg municipal market prices are slightly higher, between R5 and R6.80.
North America: North Carolina sweet potatoes face competition in Europe
North Carolina and California are the two largest sweet potato growing states in the US, together accounting for about 85 percent of production. In addition, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana are also shipping sweet potatoes currently.
While there is not an abundance of supply, there is enough to get the crop through the summer months until the fresh crop starts. The situation of sufficient supplies is mainly caused by retail movement that seems to have slowed somewhat since February. “Not a huge slowdown, but movement is off by about 10 percent over previous years,” a shipper said. It’s a different picture from last year when supplies started running quite low by June and July. Part of the slower movement can be attributed to higher FOBs. “If pricing stays like this, we won’t be going into a shortage position as we go into summer,” the shipper said. “I think pricing will go up a few dollars by May-June because we’ll still be packing out of storage and our pack outs will be down a bit.”
North Carolina sweet potatoes are particularly popular in Europe. The variety and quality are very much liked. However, there are competing crops from France, Germany, Spain, and Egypt. Egypt has been growing for four years and acreage continues to grow. Egypt’s lower prices and proximity to Europe have made it challenging for US sweet potatoes to compete.
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