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Strong avocado demand partly to blame for quality issues in Kenya

Some Kenyan avocado shipments to Europe have been turned way because of quality issues with the fruit. Though rains may have had a part to play with that, another factor is the strong demand in Europe that pulled in fruit from Kenya that was not ready for picking.

Some Kenyan growers pointed to the rain as a factor in the quality issues affecting avocados. They say the added moisture from recent rains spurred the transmission of a disease that blemishes avocado skins. As a result, the quality issues should be short-lived, as they are tied to recent storms. But Eagle Fruit Alliance's Anthon Bothma believes avocado quality issues stem from something bigger.

“The main reason for the difficulties this year are from the big demand for avocados in Europe,” he explained. “There was so much more demand than normal, so the farmers picked through their fields too fast.” Farmers bombarded with orders from Europe resorted to harvesting fruit that was not yet mature. When that fruit made it to packhouses, the problems that might arise from premature picking were not yet apparent. Though fruit might be smaller, packers and shippers couldn't tell that the fruit would turn during the trip to Europe.
“You had fruit arrive in Holland that was black once it was opened up,” said Anthon. “So supermarkets canceled some programs, and it was the shippers and agents who lost money.” The rain, in his estimation, was actually beneficial because the water helped along growth and maturity of fruit. The net effect was that the rains mitigated some of the quality issues made apparent at the latter stages of the supply chain.

Mt. Kenya Avocado farms
Another factor was the speculation that drove up prices for Kenyan avocados. Anthon points to so-called briefcase operators who don't own fields or packhouses, but who look for produce to buy and sell. They are more likely to buy sub-standard fruit simply to get something on a ship to Europe, and in a hot market with lots of demand, more poor quality fruit will make it through the supply chain.
“They sit with a laptop in a coffee shop, and they buy and sell without a care about the future of Kenya,” said Anthon. “As long as they load something and make money, they don't care.” But growers also share some of the responsibility, he added, as they are the ones who chose to pick fruit they should have known was not ready for market.
“The real problem, in my opinion, is that farmers picked the fruit too fast because demand in Europe was so big this year,” he said. “They wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, and if they would have waited longer we would have had bigger fruit that was more developed and that would have had a longer shelf life.”
Not all avocados affected

Some Kenyan shippers have been able to deal with quality issues fairly well.
“We did get complaints from our EU customers on the shelf life of our Hass variety, but we have done an analysis on the areas we need to improve on as far as post-harvest handling is concerned,” explained Asif Amin, managin director for KEITT Exporters Ltd.

Quality issues can also be kept to a minimum in properly maintained controlled atmosphere conditions.
“We haven’t heard of any quality issues as we are doing well also in the EU market,” said Frank Kariuki, avocados export manager for Mt. Kenya Avocado Farms. For those shippers who have been able to deal with quality issues, a bigger problem has been competition from Peruvian shippers. This year brought good prices in Europe, but if that market gets too congested, Kenyan shippers can look to the Middle East. Though the process of doing that is not so simple.
“We majorly export avocados to Dubai, but this year things have been a bit slow as we only do one container in a month yet last year we did two containers in 10 days,” said Karen Ndulu with Athi Farm Exporters, Ltd. “Sourcing for the fruit is not easy as growers are very specific on who they sell their fruits to. Again, last year the market was really flooded as new exporters tend to venture into the business especially during the big seasons, so this also made those who are genuine lose credibility from growers as some of them failed or delayed to pay them.”
Author: Rose Wangui and Sander Bruins Slot

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