'Demand it and we'll grow it': Morocco's organic conundrum
With annual exports worth US$1.2 billion, Morocco's produce sector is a major contributor to the global fruit and vegetable market, particularly in the European Union and Russia. With a delegation of 37 companies, the industry made its impression felt at Fruit Logistica in Berlin last week. At www.freshfruitportal.com, we caught up with representatives from the North African country to hear about their experiences with conventional and exotic items, and a national plan to raise organic production.
Moroccan fruit growers say they are ready to grow more organic crops, but for many the market is not yet large enough to warrant a greater supply.
Moroccan Export Promotion Center (Maroc Export) director general Zahra Maafiri highlights the success of the Green Morocco plan that kicked off in 2008, leading to a strong reputation in organics and year-on-year growth for the category.
"It's very challenging for the profession but it's the market we have to target, so we say to growers, 'if you want to have more profits and a greater share in the international market, you have to focus on organic products to diversify your baskets', and now they're working on this," she says.
"Today a third of the Moroccan pavilion is for organic products."
But for one of the country's leading citrus and tomato exporters, organics still make up just a small percentage of production. Pack Souss director Khalid Bounajma says his business takes more of a middle ground approach when it comes to pesticide use.
"Organic production is low for us because the market is lower. It is not a technical problem because in Morocco we have high temperatures and therefore fewer insects," Bounajma says.
"At the farm in Agadir, we do one treatment on 10% of the farm per year. It's very low and for the rest of it there is no treatment.
"Organic production will increase slowly but it's not not a high enough percent. A lot of supermarkets demand GlobalG.A.P. certification and that is the solution between organic and allowing the consumer to still respect the environment."
He says Pack Souss has gone even further than organic cultivation through more demanding biodynamic farming systems, but only half of the organic clementines and mandarins grown on a test plot of 20 hectares could be sold, because sufficient demand just wasn't there.
To put the company's production into perspective, the director mentions he grows citrus across 176,000 hectares in the Agadir region, with 90% dedicated to mandarins. Around 500,000-600,000 metric tons (MT) of fruit is shipped each year.
"The season starts in October and finishes with Afourer mandarins in March, and for oranges it starts in December and ends in May or June.
"Normally for the markets that need a very high level of taste, Morocco goes very well, but for other markets that focus more on quantities, like Russia, we have some difficulties."
Maafiri says the Russian market is particularly important for the produce industry, which ships 46% of its fruit to the market and 24% of its vegetables.
"We are not at the volumes coming from China, but our citrus have a very good image for the Russian consumers because we have been sending them citrus for 50 years - during the time of Russian socialism, the citrus coming from Morocco were a gift at Christmas, so it's a very good souvenir for them.
Aside from China, she adds Moroccan citrus also faces tough competition from Turkey, Egypt and Spain.
In Germany, she says Morocco is the 12th biggest provider of fruits and the seventh largest supplier of vegetables.
"Along with France, U.K. and Italy, the Netherlands and Russia, it is one of our biggest markets."
Maroc Export figures claim Morocco is the world's eighth largest citrus supplier, and in 12th place it is one of the world's top strawberry exporters as well. Maafiri says exports of the berry have witnessed annual growth of 25% in recent years.
"We started with 10 hectares and now we have 2,500 hectares. Especially in 1985 and 1986 there was a big change into modern production, which led to much more productivity," says Fresouer manager Larbi Chaib, whose company is a leading strawberry grower. He adds this hectareage is about the third of the surface area dedicated to the fruit in Spain.
"The amount hectares will not grow. The prices will stay firm or will even decrease due to the crisis in Europe."
He says the good sun and high temperatures are clearly of benefit to berry production, which is sent internationally to markets like Germany, the Czech Republic, France and England.
Chaib takes a similar approach to Bounajma when it comes to organic production.
"Even if it is expansive, we follow the demand of international markets."
In an interview with France's L'Economiste, the berry leader said the cost of freight across the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain was the most expensive in the world in terms of price per kilometer, with transportation absorbing 20% of turnover.
A piece of the tropics on Europe's doorstep
For Maafiri, Tiwiza Exotic is a good example of the diversity of products available from Morocco, as its name suggests. Tiwiza's manager Lahoussine Kanane says he ventured into exotic produce items after assessing products from Latin America and Asia for production in his native country.
"I introduced the fruit kiwano in 2004, and that was when exotic fruit production in Morocco started. For many years we did research and development to select which exotic fruits that would be adapt to the region of Agadir," he says.
Other products grown by Tiwiza include passionfruit, red-flesh dragonfruit, habanero chili peppers, papayas and cape gooseberries (physallis), while there are still other crops under experimentation.
"I wouldn’t say they are the most popular but the ones that catch the most attention would be the kiwano and the dragonfruit.
"The most important advantage our fruit has is that in four days it can be in Europe. Meanwhile, Latin America and Asia need 20 days on a boat.
"This means the products reach the European market very fresh and have a good period of conservation, so the commercialization of the fruit is much easier."
He highlights this also has advantages for marketing to consumers, given the lower carbon footprint of transportation compared to Latin American and Asian competitors.
Kanane still does not grow his fruits organically, but is considering it if there is more demand in the future. As for expanding his current 25 hectares of production, growth potential depends on investment capital.
"With the market as it is we could easily reach 50-100 hectares but it depends on financing."
In terms of other products grown in Morocco, Maroc Export says the country is the world's second-highest exporter of green beans, the fourth-largest shipper of tomatoes, and the 12th biggest exporter of melons. The produce contributes to 18% of the national GDP and 20% of exports.