Education drives Aussie avocado export growth
Mining, engineering and industrial companies dominated the Premier of Queensland's Export Awards in Australia this month, but among the winners there was an uncommon sight - horticulture. The Avocado Export Company (AEC) took out the emerging exporter award, with buoyant growth despite a high Australian dollar that has been debilitating for so many in the produce industry. At www.freshfruitportal.com, we speak with AEC and another shipper, Sunfresh Marketing Cooperative Limited, about the inroads made in Asia.
AEC managing director Jennie Franceschi will head to Canberra next week for the national export awards, and says she is only now starting to realize the honor of this recognition.
"We’re just a small company getting our head above water and these are massive companies - some of these guys are doing AUD$80 million (US$83 million) a year, but then again, they're in mining and we're in avocados," she says.
"I assume we won because we did increase market share and make money at a time when it’s been tough for exports because of the high Australian dollar; obviously it's been a big team effort from avocado players in Australia."
AEC may be small but it is Australia's top exporter of the fruit, with revenue that rose 123% in the 2011-12 financial year to AUD$3.8 million (US$3.94 million). High dollar growth was seen in Singapore, rising to AUD$1.3 million (US$1.35 million), while the business has also been going well in the key markets of Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
The highest percentage growth has been in the Middle East, going from nothing to AUD$380,000 (US$394,396) in 2011-12.
"We've just got a customer in the Middle East that will take air pallets into the market, so we’ve broken a bit of ground there," she says.
Improving the supply chain
These numbers have not grown by themselves. Franceschi attributes growth to a focus on service by educating people in destination markets about the best handling, ripening and storage for the fruit.
"There’s no point in promoting something to a consumer if it’s substandard, so we had to fix that problem first.
"We actually did the work with the product handlers to get them to handle the product well, because originally they did not - we'd find avocados in cool rooms with apples at 1°C (33.8°F), and there would be chill damage."
"Up until this past year, the education has been how to handle the product at importer and retailer level; we'd do workshops with Trade Queensland, give information, ripening charts in their languages, and we'd get produce managers from retailers in to teach them about the fruit."
Franceschi emphasizes the growth has come with the same customers in these destination markets, and the company has built off the better supply chain through consumer education this past year.
"Now consumers are saying, "we want Australian", and that means we've done our job, because our whole pitch has been about 'Australian', not as our individual company," she says.
"We've got consumers saying, "I know I can get this cheaper", but they still want ours."
She says the deal into Asia is year-round, with the exception of Hong Kong which only accepts Australian fruit from April to July, before moving on to Mexican supply.
Franceschi adds Australia also has to compete with supply from South Africa, New Zealand, Peru and sometimes Chile, depending on the time of year.
AEC has only existed since 2009 when it brought together growers who account for around 60% of Australia's production. Franceschi runs Advanced Packing and Marketing Services (APMS) which is based in Western Australia, where the season is currently in full swing.
"We're ramping it up now (in Western Australia). We were a bit short earlier on. September and October were a bit tough trying to get enough volume, and we're starting to move a little bit more into our offshore customers at the moment.
The majority of AEC's shareholders are based in Queensland though. Key Australian avocado exporter Sunfresh Marketing Cooperative Limited is too, on the Sunshine Coast.
Sunfresh general manager Judy Prosser says her business has witnessed growth in the Hong Kong, Thai and Singaporean markets. She highlights Avocados Australia programs in Asia have been highly beneficial for exports.
"Avocados Australia did a program in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia for chef training, done by the industry," she says.
"We’re looking at doing something similar probably in Thailand in the near future – we’re pretty strong in terms of promoting the product, and doing our own promotional work.
"It's very much about the growth of the avocado industry into the export market, in all of our export markets."
She says there are high expectations Australia's avocado export growth will continue.
"The fruit is well sort after, it continues to be a quality product, and every time we attend some of these exhibitions like Asia Fruit Logistica, we have potential customers coming to us wanting the product; the brand is certainly well known."
Prosser was part of a recent delegation on the Australia Fresh stand at the China Fruit and Vegetable Fair in Beijing, along with AEC's chairman Daryl Boardman, and representatives from the cherry, citrus, litchi and grape industries.
"There was a positive response to Australian avocados being exported into China – it could take three years, it could take five years for us to get avocados into China.
"It’s probably more to do with relationships than anything to do with pest and disease management. From what we understand, Chinese are very much about relationship building, and if you think you’ve established a relationship, there’s probably more you need to do.
"I think avocados are currently sitting somewhere about number five on the list of products to go in, and at the moment they're working on cherries - it's pretty likely Tasmanian cherries will be accepted into mainland China next season."
Sunfresh is also supplying out of Western Australia at the moment, where Prosser says the fruit quality is good, size is a bit down, and estimates are probably slightly lower than what was initially estimated for the season.