To sell our avocados in China, we must pass the quality test
As we see an upsurge in farmers planting avocado trees in the desire to improve their incomes, the key question which needs to be asked is; are farmers exploiting our true market potential for avocados?
Avocado production is not new to Kenya. However, in the last five years there has been an increase in production of avocados by smallholder farmers . We are now the second largest producer on the continent after South Africa.
But what does that mean in the global avocado market? It is estimated that last year the world consumed in excess of 6,000,000 tons of fruit with the majority being produced and consumed by Central and North America.
To pick a few statistics, USA alone consumed 1,126,000 tons while Europe consumed 650,000 tons. Consumption in China is growing at a fast rate but currently only approximately 120,000 tons.
The World Avocado Association estimates that global consumption is predicted to rise by 15 per cent annually.
On the production side, the big players of Mexico, Dominican Republic and Peru dominate and with buoyant domestic markets a considerable volume is not exported.
It is estimated that Mexico produces 2,000,000 metric tons, Dominican Republic 640,000 tons and Peru 460,000 tons. Within Africa, Kenya exported around 64,000 tons with South Africa roughly 90,000 tons.
There appears to be a lot of growth potential out there, with plenty of demand for Hass, and emerging markets such as China.
Conversely, there are also a lot of countries increasing their production, so what makes someone want to buy our fruit?
If we are to compete globally, how do we provide more or at least the same as other producers?
This is where our story of Quality, Traceability, and Sustainability begins.
Customer requirements for quality seem easy enough? No one wants to buy fruit which never ripens or cut into one and finds it rotten inside.
So how do we as Kenya play our part in delivering top quality fruit to the market? In simplistic terms, the basics to producing quality are harvesting the fruit at its correct maturity level, balanced fertiliser inputs when growing the fruit and the correct postharvest and cold chain management.
The markets also don’t help us. A shortage of avocados in Europe will see agents demanding “any available” fruit. If demand for our fruit is going to grow to match the increased production levels then we have to improve our reputation as a quality producer.
Failing to do that could mean Kenya remains the cheap ‘last resort’ when nothing else is available.
The second part is traceability. What does this mean? In a nutshell, the ability to trace the fruit from ‘field to fork’.
We must be able to trace a carton of fruit back to the grower who produced it and more importantly have confidence that the grower produced it, in the agreed and prescribed manner.
This not only covers food safety but also covers the contentious area of phytosanitary requirements.
Traceability is not new to us, our export horticultural industry (flowers and vegetables) has been complying with traceability standards for some time but we have had our challenges.
The supermarket chains in Northern Europe are another key element to our markets, and not having these, and potentially the Chinese on board in the future, limits our potential customer base.
So how do we achieve traceability? One container of fruit exported to Europe will contain 5,400 cartons of 4kg each.
Using some approximations this works out to be about 135,000 fruits delivered to the Packhouse in 10 to 15 different pickups from 30 - 40 farmers who have planted anywhere between 10 to 1,000 trees.
How do you know which fruit was grown by who?
You can’t tell at the moment, but technology could provide an answer to this in the future if developments such as individual micro bar codes become affordable?
One answer is the development of organised and well-managed farmer groups comprising of all avocado farmers within a specific and reasonably localised area.
We should, however, ensure that whilst farmers are provided with skills to grow the crop correctly through these groups the payments made should be to each farmer directly from the exporter, not through an intermediary.
There are already such groups in practice today, but we need to develop these to achieve traceability standards, not an easy task as sometimes other pressures and very practical issues can stand in the way. Such examples include farmers being able to access the correct agrochemicals for avocados. This is where we come back to China.
The Chinese import fresh fruit from other countries such as Chile, Peru, and Mexico but they demand a high level of phytosanitary compliance. We need to engage on this basis and match the standards of other origins.
We can’t just be advising farmers to grow more fruit if we don’t have a clear strategy for where and to whom we are going to sell the product and without traceability the markets become limited.
Sustainability. We are acutely aware of climate change, we live with its effects daily. But is sustainability all about climate change? Perhaps ultimately it all comes down to the same thing, protecting our planet for future generations and thus, indirectly, how we grow our fruit is important.
The world’s consumers are demanding more of us as farmers. We are being measured by the market on pesticide residues, water sustainability, soil preservation, ‘food miles’ and numerous other indices.
We have to be able to demonstrate compliance for arguably two reasons. Firstly, simple economics.
There are markets who will not put so much emphasis on this but then we are limiting competition for our fruit.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly. It’s the right thing to do, we have a responsibility to our future generations. Sustainability. [The writer is the Managing Director of Kakuzi Plc]