The signing of new Free Trade Agreements between the European Union and several Central American governments provided the impetus in 2012 for the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) to launch an aggressive export programme for the region’s agri-food industry. Three years on, Produce Business UK catches up with CBI to learn what the companies involved in the scheme have to offer the UK now
The Central American Agro Food Programme run by CBI – an agency within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands – focuses on Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and encompasses small to medium-sized companies (SMEs) that grow products including: fruits, vegetables, coffee, cocoa and processed food like herbs and spices.
By promoting sustainable development, the idea is to enable the 40 active companies taking part, of which 16 are involved in fruit and vegetable production, to generate €25 million (£18m) in exports to Europe before the end of 2017.
“The agro-food sector is by far the most important sector in Central America in terms of its contribution to GDP, its (European) export potential, and the high proportion of poor people among its workforce,” CBI expert Arno van der Maden tells PBUK.
“While most Central American agro-food exports are focused on the US or the regional Central American market, a number of Central American fruit and vegetable products also show high potential for the European market.”
Opportunities for UK buyers
Such products include limes, blackberries, sugar snaps, snow peas, okra, watermelon, mini vegetables like baby carrots and corn, as well as tropicals like mangoes, pineapples and avocados, plus exotics such as rambutan.
The UK represents a “good market” for suppliers of all of these products, according to Van der Maden. Likewise, he says there are also real gains for UK buyers to source specific products, from Guatemala in particular, that would plug gaps in the UK’s supply calendar.
“Mangoes are very interesting,” he claims. “Guatemala has production when Peru is finishing and everyone is looking for different suppliers. So, Guatemala can fill a gap and the transit time is 20 days. Limes are the same; when Mexico and Brazil are short, Guatemala has availability.
“Guatemalan sugar snaps are also available when Africa isn’t producing, so that crop is interesting for the UK too. Plus, while it would be challenging, there is scope to produce sugar snaps in Guatemala all year round because the country has so many different altitudes and climates.”
On the exotics front, Van der Maden claims both Guatemala and Honduras have “really nice” hybrid rambutan varieties that UK buyers would do well to consider.
“The flesh comes loose easily and there’s a lot of juice,” he explains. “I’d say they have a better eating quality than rambutan you get from Thailand or Indonesia.”
Honduras also offers year-round production of sweet potatoes, which in recent years have become a firm favourite among UK consumers.
“Not many people might know that Honduras harvests sweet potatoes all year round so there’s no need to store the product at all – it’s always fresh,” he points out. “The US season in comparison is very short and therefore some product is stored for a few months before being shipped to extend availability.”
With regards to the UK market, the majority of the companies working with CBI are looking to develop long-term relationships with importers, wholesalers and retailers as well as smaller speciality shops or niche/exotic importers.
While APAC.PNT already exports sugar snaps, snow peas and blackberries to the UK and Vedex supplies French beans to the UK, CBI says many more grower-exporters in the programme have obtained the necessary GlobalGAP certification and are now focused on and ready to supply the UK.
“Some of the companies already have customers in the UK but it’s still a grey cloud,” Van der Maden comments. “Everyone is really interested in the UK market and eager to find out more. We want to build long-term, commercial partnerships that are based on quality products because there is no sustainability in sending a few boxes here and there.”
CBI recently used the occasion of the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 in early June to both exhibit at the event as well as host a field expedition to the UK for eight Central American exporters.
The group took the opportunity to tour wholesale markets, supermarkets, processing companies and importers, among other sectors to learn about the UK market. Visits included stops at Marks & Spencer, Orchard House Foods in Corby and Minor Weir and Willis, as well as other supermarkets in London.
“It’s really important to know your market, especially in the UK because it’s an end market; unlike the Netherlands which re-exports a lot of produce,” Van der Maden notes. “You also have to fully understand the requirements for the UK because the standards are higher and certification demands are stricter than other markets. It’s a good market but these demands can sometimes keep growers away because they don’t understand. The UK is still a number one market for many.”
Thanks to the work CBI has been doing for the last 40 years Van der Maden says the companies who go through the scheme become well-prepared, reliable and sustainable suppliers of high quality products. To get to that stage, CBI offers support via programmes in export management, product quality and reliability of supply.
One of the secrets of the programme’s success is the self-responsibility of participants. “CBI teaches and trains companies – you could call it a type of development aid but we don’t give out money,” Van der Maden explains. “We help them to become better exporters. We go through the process with them, but we don’t sell for them. They learn for themselves and they have to show they are willing to take part.”
As part of the support package, external experts are drafted in to teach the companies many aspects of the trade, such as how to produce, harvest and pack in accordance with European requirements, the importance of CSR, marketing your business and how to communicate with European buyers.
CBI has also developed a special online portal featuring European market research information relating to fruits and vegetables. In addition, the agency organises match-making meetings and expositions in the Netherlands, and, as an extension to that, it supports those exporters wishing to exhibit at trade fairs like Fruit Logistica and the London Produce Show, where they can meet buyers.
With most companies involved in the programme for four years and many success stories to its credit, including a chilli pepper supplier from Colombia who now exports worldwide, the waiting list is usually full.
Cuasa from the south of Honduras is another exporter now seeing the fruits of its labour on the CBI programme. Experienced in producing, exporting and distributing fresh American okra since 2005, the firm is reaping success in the UK after striking up a partnership with a wholesaler at New Spitalfields Market.
“Recently, Cuasa has doubled its sales [to the Spitalfields trader] because of its product quality and they could do a lot more,” Van der Maden notes. “Their products are clean – there are no pesticide residue issues and they taste good. The market trader even says so – he reckons Cuasa’s okra is selling like hot cakes. They are now doing 40-50 pallets a week. But Cuasa could do 20 containers per week.”
A snapshot of some of the suppliers with an eye on the UK:
Agrícola Tierra Nueva Snow peas, sugar snaps, English peas, French beans
APAC.PNT Blackberries, Snow peas, sugar snaps, French beans
Ixin Quesal Limes, watermelon
Latin Food Fresh & Frozen Snow peas, French beans, mini veg, chia
Reliable Fruits Avocados, rambutan, mangoes, pineapples, limes
Vedex Snow peas, sugar snaps, French beans
Pyflor Mini vegetables, herbs
Find out more about all of the Central American companies working with CBI here.
CBI’s freshproducesupplier.com website provides details for buyers about the companies it supports and the products they offer.