UK and the Netherlands largest European importers

Global trade of sweet potato 1% of production

Sweet potatoes are grown and consumed all over the world. The part of the production traded on the global market, is relatively small. A lot of countries mainly grow for the domestic market. Europe is a large importer of the sweet potatoes, especially from the US. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are the largest importers. The Spanish season went normally, Israeli growers see no salvation in export due to the low prices. The US exports more, although the weather somewhat slowed the production. Australia is dealing with a surplus. China is the largest producer, but the consumption is low.

The sweet potato has been on the rise in 2012. Globally, the trade in sweet potato is increasing. China stick out above the rest of the world with a production of over seventy million tonnes in 2014. Second and third are Tanzania and Nigeria with a production of 3.5 million tonnes each. Then comes Uganda with 2.6 million tonnes and Indonesia with 2.4 million tonnes. The US, the main supplier for the European market, produces 1.1 million tonnes. Most of the global production isn't intended for export, but is consumed on the domestic markets. Only one percent of the production is exported to other regions.

The European market for sweet potatoes is still relatively small, but is growing fast. In 2014 Europe imported 124,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes, of which 7 tonnes was intended for consumption. The import of this exotic has doubled in five years. Supermarkets play into the rising demand for the sweet potatoes. Large importers in Europe are the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The Netherlands functions as a transit port for the rest of Europe. The US are the largest supplier with a market share of seventy percent.

Europe also imports from different countries. In 2014, 10,000 tonnes was imported from Egypt and 8,000 tonnes from Honduras, Israel, worth 6,000 tonnes and Senegal, South Africa and Brazil are smaller suppliers with 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes. In total, Europe exported 1.9 million Euro worth to countries outside of the Union. Within the European countries the export of 21 million Euro increased to 52 million Euro between 2010 and 2014.

Within Europe the sweet potato is grown in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. Together, these countries produced around 56,000 tonnes in 2013. As far as consumption is concerned, however, these aren't the biggest countries. The United Kingdom, Portugal and the Netherlands were the largest consumers of the sweet potatoes in 2013. Per head of the population these three countries remain front runners, but Portugal takes the leading position.

The interest in the sweet potato is also increasing outside of the EU. In the Ukraine tests were done with the exotic, which caught on with the consumer. What is confusing is that the Ukrainian customs don't have the opportunity to import the sweet potato.

British market the largest in Europe
The United Kingdom has a market share of 44 percent in the import of sweet potatoes in Europe, making it the largest in Europe. In tonnes the volume is 82,000 tonnes. A small part is intended for re-export to Ireland, but the main volume remains on the domestic market.
The Spanish season in the United Kingdom ended slightly earlier. A trader says that he would have liked to have seen that the season ran until January, but the quality was insufficient. 

Belgian consumer appreciates sweet potato
In Belgium, like elsewhere in Europe, the sweet potato has been winning ground for years. This is partially due to the taste, which the younger generation likes. The consumer is also looking for more variation on their plate and the sweet potato has a lot of applications in the kitchen. The demand for sweet potato increases in December, in the run up to the holidays, consumers are looking for special products. The supply mainly comes from the US and Honduras, there is also some export from Israel, Egypt, Spain. "When the Spanish and the Egyptian are on the market, the prices are often the lowest, other than this it is normally quite stable," says a Belgian importer.

The Netherlands transit port
Within Europe the Netherlands is the second importer, with a market share of 24 percent, or 44,000 tonnes. A large part of the imported sweet potatoes are transited to the European hinterland. In the export, the Netherlands has a share of 36 percent and is therefore the largest European exporter of the sweet potatoes. Important export destinations are Germany, France, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The growing popularity of the sweet potato translated into considerably larger volumes. A trader says that customers who started with boxes now buy pallets.

Normal Spanish season
The second importer in Europe, with a market share of 29 percent. The season this years is mostly over, the harvest in the south started in August. What stands out is that the demand remained constant, including for the organic sweet potatoes. The prices of the sweet potatoes were in line with last year this season. The production increased by 15 to 20 percent and similar growth figures are expected for next year. The sector is investing in the storage capacity, to stretch the season as much as possible. The goal is to compete with the American supply in January to May.

Export barely profitable for Israel
Israeli growers prefer to keep the products on the domestic market. Cheap products and a low exchange rate make Europe less attractive for the export. The domestic market supplies better prices. The prices in Europe are pulled down by a large supply from Egypt and Spain, says and exporter. This causes the prices to sit around six and eight Euro per box. 

Growth in production and export United States
Plagued by quality problems, the supply from the US is considerably lower than previously, says a European trader. The last year and a half the quality was very varied, a European importer complains. The summer months were hot and dry, the winter was cold and wet: this has consequences for the sweet potatoes, especially the sizes. This slowed down the harvest in North and South Carolina. When the harvest was to start, the fields were too wet.

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The US is the largest supplier of sweet potatoes for the European market. European traders prefer the large volumes and stability of the American suppliers. The main competitor in Europe is Spain, but according to an American trader the Spanish product can't compete with the American quality.

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The American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute also sees the growth of the export: "The good news is that the total export is increasing by 34 percent this year. The export to the United Kingdom has grown by fifty percent, and the export to the Benelux has also grown."

Oversupply on Australian market
The trade down under is dealing with an oversupply of sweet potatoes. The harvest from Queensland is larger than normal, thanks to the warm and mild weather in the spring and summer. Due to the oversupply the prices have dropped to a third of what they were in the summer of 2014. Then the prices were around sixty dollars per box, as the rain slowed the harvest. This year the prices are between 18 and 24 dollars per box. Varieties such as the Hawaiian are still doing well, with prices around 30 to 40 dollars per box. The export can grow in 2016, partially due to the increased supply and good infrastructure.

Chinese consumption on the rise
One the Chinese market sweet potatoes fetch 2.50 dollars per kilo. This makes the prices slightly higher than last year. Globally, China is the largest producer of sweet potatoes. In 2014 around 70 million tonnes was harvested, worth 65 percent of the global production. In the same year the country exported 9,000 tonnes. Although it is still a small part of the total production, the export is growing steadily. Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, the US and Canada are important markets for Chinese export.

The consumption has strongly decreased in the last decade. In the 70s half of the domestic production was consumed, in the next decade this figure dropped to ten percent. Most of the production ends up as cattle fodder. In recent years the consumption is showing a rising line once again.

Taiwan expects a bad start to 2016
In the first half of 2015 the prices for the sweet potatoes decreased. Despite efforts to offer the sweet potatoes in other ways, for instance baked, the price remained low. In the second half of the year, shortages lead to slightly higher prices. Due to a hurricane raging over the island, part of the harvest was lost. A lower quality is expected for the first half of 2016.

South Africa becomes a larger player
Over the next few years south Africa is expected to take over a larger market share. A British importer points to the growing production in the African country, besides the white flesh, orange sweet potatoes are also being grown. A number of growers are said to have contacts with British retailers about supply.

Every week FreshPlaza and publish an overview of the market situation of a product in a global context. With these articles we aim to provide a view of a global market shrinking due to globalisation. Next time lemons will be in the spotlight. Due to the holidays the next article in this series will be published on the 8th of January.

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