Asia: make or break for export grapes

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Asia: make or break for export grapes

With direct grape shipments to China on the rise and new varieties vying for space in a Red Globe-dominated market, all exporters to the Asian giant face risks and some get rewards. At Grape Attraction 2012 in Madrid, heard both South American and South African perspectives on where the future lies for the fruit in China and its neighboring countries.

China is one of the few Asian countries that consumes most of what it produces, with a strong market for fruit and vegetables from elsewhere too. At the event, put on as part of the broader convention Fruit Attraction, Origin Fruit Services South America's Oscar Salgado said the Chinese market evoked a variety feelings.

"The U.S., Chile, Peru, South Africa and Australia are the most important players in supplying this market in terms of table grapes," he said.

He said the season started with grapes from California, moved on to Peru which has become an ever more important supplier, and then transitioned into the Chilean deal.

"There is a period between the end of July and the start of September when an attractive window exists, and that's when some countries face the firm decision of being able to meet those sales," he said.

"But you can't lose sight of the fact this time is a harvest period for the local market."

Around 70% of grapes shipped to China are Red Globes, while Salgado added Guangzhou would continue to be the most important entry and sales point for imported table grapes.

"Peruvian Red Globes have rapidly gained space in this market and today they are competing heavily at the end of the American season, and at the start of the Chilean [season]."

While this variety is also an important element of the Chilean supply, Salgado mentioned there has also been an increase in Autumn Seedless and Autumn Royal shipments.

"[Chilean] Crimsons have been winning space in the market but the fruit is very dark and it's hard to compete with Australian and South African Crimsons."

He said countries like Chile and Peru were taking on strategies of direct fruit exports to Chinese ports; a pending task in the case of South Africa, which plays an important role in white seedless varieties.

South Africa, asking the hard questions

For Samuel Pieterse of South African fruit company SAPEX, the Asian grape market could be either a success or a failure for his compatriots, who still need to gain space in the region.

All hype about economic growth and a booming middle class aside, he emphasized that South African exporters needed to make it clear whether Asia was truly the market they wanted.

"Before everything they want the right crops. We have to keep in mind that different markets have different requirements - it's also culture, how people want their fruit," he said.

"What Asian people want is fruit with the right appearance. They give a lot of fruits as presents to their family and friends, and if they give something they want it to be perfect.

"They are very focused on color and it is important to understand the market to know what color we could place in one market or another."

He said Asian consumers also tended to want fruit that was uniformly large and firm with a crunchy berry, with high brix levels that lead to sweetness.

"It is also important to have the right packaging."

Karsten Group's Pieter Karsten, whose company has small operations in China, emphasized to attendees that exporters simply couldn't ship grapes of secondary quality to the Middle Kingdom.

"You can see with time that if you produce the correct quality and put the right quality in the market constantly, your brand will sell at a premium level," he said.

"A lot of [South African] farmers ask, 'what is the real market where I want to be?' These types of questions and discussions are heard more each day."

Client relationships

Salgado explained a large part of exporting to China had to do with maintaining relationships, and the fact consumers were only prepared to pay for a product once comparing it with all other options.

"With fruit there are no second opportunities in China. There are no quality parameters, but quality concepts. They are looking for packaging that gives them a message," he said.

Pieterse added it was key to know which Asian countries were more or less developed in the retail sector, as well as getting the right balance of quantity and quality.

He said at the same time exporters needed to establish trust in their brands, while choosing credible importers and retailers with infrastructure that could support their products.

"If you have any quality problems in these markets, resolve them quickly; these don't go away, they just get worse."

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