The late start to the Moroccan early vegetable season, after a difficult development summer, has disrupted the normal course of the Moroccan campaign. While prices for Moroccan vegetables normally fall in September/October and rise in January/February, this year is witnessing the opposite picture. Mauritania's decision to increase customs duties on fresh Moroccan produce has also caused confusion. Oussama Machi, a vegetable grower in the Souss Massa region, shares his perspective on the odd 2023-2024 season.
Machi explains: "It is well known that the Souss Massa region accounts for 80% of national early vegetable production and 67% of exports. Volumes from this region are therefore decisive for the Moroccan agricultural campaign. In this context, the difficult summer we experienced, with record temperatures, plant diseases, seed shortage, and the delay in launching the campaign, were determining factors for the Moroccan campaign as a whole."
The late start to the campaign is partly due to uncertainty in the sector, adds Machi. "Growers were waiting for seeds resistant to ToBRFV, which has become an epidemic in Morocco. Everyone had their reasons for waiting before taking risks: what to produce? with what seeds? on how many hectares? at what price? Planting decisions were taken at the last minute. This wait-and-see attitude in October, coupled with crop losses over the summer, led to a shortage and soaring prices on the local and export markets." But, unsuspectedly, this expectation then led to overproduction.
Oussama Machi, Moroccan grower/exporter of fresh produce based in Souss Massa
When all the growers resigned themselves to planting, the temperatures, which had been an aggravating factor at the start of the season, then improved dramatically: "Temperatures oscillated between 27 and 33 degrees, which is unheard of," describes Machi. "The historical average for the region is 14 degrees. This exceptional warmth created an ideal environment for vegetable production. What's more, the clear, bright skies provided optimal lighting for plant growth, helping to increase production".
The delay in planting, which coincided with much better weather conditions, led to the overproduction of almost all early vegetables and a consequent fall in prices. Machi reports: "Prices for Moroccan tomatoes have fallen by 80% in the local market, and peppers by 50%. Export prices have also fallen considerably, especially to France. Prices for zucchinis have remained stable. The only exceptions are beans, both green and flat, and cucumbers, whose prices have risen due to the reduction in acreage explained by low profitability last few seasons."
The drop in prices was felt - and celebrated - on the local market, and coincided with the day after Mauritania's decision to increase customs duties on Moroccan fresh produce. But for Machi, correlation does not imply causation, and linking the two facts is impertinent. He explains: "You have to look beyond the timing. First of all, this season has seen exceptional overproduction in Morocco, which is directly responsible for the drop in prices. Mauritania doesn't import that much of Moroccan vegetables, and the drop in exports to this country remains too negligible in terms of volume to have an impact on prices throughout Morocco and on exports."
The grower continues: "Mauritania is first and foremost a distribution hub. The majority of volumes transit there for delivery to West Africa, and the increase in customs duties does not affect these trucks. It's true, however, that West Africa imports a lot of Moroccan vegetables, but the end of the rainy season in these countries has given way to local production and a drop in Moroccan exports. The impact was felt very quickly, as Moroccan producers lacked coordination with their markets in Africa due to the presence of too many intermediaries. That said, with Morocco's production surplus, we currently have sufficient volumes for everyone, provided demand takes off".
Vegetable volumes are piling up in Morocco, while demand, particularly from Europe, is lagging behind. This situation is due to improved temperatures throughout the Mediterranean basin, explains Machi. "This year's exceptional warmth has also been recorded in other major producing countries, such as Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Egypt. All production from these countries converges on Europe, and we have seen the consequences in terms of lower prices. European demand has therefore fallen considerably, as is the case for tomatoes exported to the UK for example, whose volumes have dropped by 30%."
How can one predict the rest of this eventful season? "One thing is certain: prices will rise again before the end of the campaign," says Machi. "Many growers are sorely lacking in cash flow to carry out their agricultural operations, and some are even lacking in motivation. We're seeing more and more uprooting, or plantations left to fend for themselves. The result will be lower yields for late vegetables."
"It's difficult to predict exactly when prices will rise again, whether this will coincide with the Ramadan period, or before or after. What is certain is that the vegetable export campaign should end in May, when local production in Europe will be available. That said, it is highly unlikely that the increase will be of the same severity as in October-December," concludes Machi.
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