How avocado exports to China are reshaping the sub-sector

Kakuzi staff team tagging packages for tracking at the Kakuzi PLC in Avocado farming and packaging for export in Thika on May 19, 2022. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Avocado is emerging as a key export crop and industry players are tipping it to become a key foreign exchange earner in the coming years. This is as local producers start making inroads in the non-traditional markets including China and India.

Kenyan farmers started exporting the fruit to China in September last year and a year later, the country made the first shipment to India.

It is perhaps the opening of the Chinese market that has so far made a major mark on avocado farming - by increasing earnings and upping the industry’s capacity.

It has endeavoured to meet the market’s higher standards while at the same time improving Kenya’s ranking as an exporter. 

Today, Kenya is ranked the fifth largest avocado exporter in the world, competing with Mexico, the top producer globally. 

Kakuzi Chief Executive Officer Chris Flowers explained that while China is still a new market for Kenyan avocados, it has the potential to upset the traditional export markets once it has fully matured.

Packaging facilities

He said efforts are going on to popularise Kenyan avocados in China.

“It is a very new fruit for China. There is a lot of work going on in China to demonstrate to the Chinese consumers what the quality, and health benefits of eating avocado are. This is being done by our Chinese partners as well as by ourselves back in Kenya. There is a lot of work that has gone into that,” he said. 

Kakuzi is the largest exporter of the fruit in Kenya. Other than what is produced at its orchards, the firm works with avocado outgrowers, giving them access to packaging facilities, supply chain logistics and exporting their produce.

“(Research shows that by) 2030, 50 per cent of worldwide fresh produce will be consumed in Asia,” he said, explaining that while traditional markets where Kenya has been exporting fresh produce are still important, Kenya needed to diversify, with countries such as China and India being the best shots.

“Other markets are important but Asia is also becoming a key trading partner.”

He said the opening up of the Chinese market to Kenyan farmers had helped build local capacity in the fresh produce industry and fresh produce export. It has also helped propel the country into one of the leading exporters of avocados globally.

“Kenya is now the fifth largest exporter of avocado in the world. That is an impressive statistic and accolade for the country, maybe we will become the fourth or the third. Maybe we will add another crop,” said Flowers. 

Kenya has in the past focused on Europe as the primary market for its avocados. It has also not been a major exporter but over the last 10 years, the country has enhanced its avocado production. 

This has led to an increase in the volume and quality of avocados available for export. Kenya is now ranked among the leading exporters alongside Mexico, Peru and Chile.

“Opening any market is very good because it gives us an opportunity to sell into that market. China and India hold huge potential because of their large populations,” said Ernest Muthomi, the chief executive officer of the Avocado Society of Kenya.

Muthomi observed that there are already signs of an impending explosion in the horticulture subsector, including Chinese firms setting up shop in the country.

“The production is going to grow… the industry is also going to grow. We have also seen Chinese-owned firms start operations in the country. There are about three or four registered Chinese exporters who are buying avocados and shipping them to China. Avocado export is going to be big.”

Kenya exported an estimated 100 containers of avocados to China this year, which according to Muthomi, though good considering it is the first year of exporting to the country, is barely a scratch on the surface.

Kenya exports 5,000 and 6,000 containers of fruit annually. “Consumption of avocado in China is not as big yet, it is a market with potential for growth and given the population, we have a chance to play our game there,” he said.

“We have been able to sell some significant volumes considering that this market just opened. I have been able to travel to some of the cities and saw some cafes that specialise in avocados.”

Muthomi noted that a major challenge has been the high tax regime that Kenyan avocados are subjected to.

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