Colombia to send first dragon fruit shipment to South Korea
A Colombian grower association expects to kick off yellow pitahaya shipments to South Korea this Friday, after inspectors from the East Asian country gave the tick of approval to its post-harvest treatment operations.
Asoppitaya general manager Sandra Garcia told www.freshfruitportal.com the yellow pitahaya - also known as yellow dragon fruit - would likely be shipped by airfreight from Pereira to Bogota, and then on to Seoul via Houston or Miami.
Her comments were made last week during a European buyer mission arranged by Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE), with support from ProColombia and Germany's Import Promotion Desk (IPD).
"On Monday (today) we'll start with all the operations like the validation of the machinery and the calibration of sensors; there will be a test of the machinery while it's empty and one with the fruit, and then we'll start the commercial process," Garcia said,
She said it would probably take three days for the fruit to reach the South Korean market, similar to current transport times to Hong Kong and Japan.
Garcia told the European delegation the fruit was treated at 46°C (115°F) for approximately three hours to comply with the Korean and Japanese protocols in order to mitigate fruit fly risks, while negotiations were also underway for U.S. market access.
"The U.S. authorities have to validate the machinery first, as well as the crops and the packhouse, and then we'll be able to have the viability to export to the U.S. but that will take two or three years," she said.
"For the U.S. we'd do the same treatment, but not for Europe."
The fruit is harvested green to improve shelf life as the heat treatment speeds up ripening, but Garcia said the fruit would be yellow on arrival in destination markets.
"Today this is the only facility in the country to do this kind of treatment for this level of exportation," Garcia said.
"We have a capacity of five metric tons (MT) per week. The biggest destination is Hong Kong at 2MT and now Japan and Korea will be receiving a total of 1.5MT per week," she said, highlighting volumes to Korea would start at 500kg (1,102lbs) per week and potentially increase over time.
Amid annual growth rates of 30-35% as well as 'significant' growth of 27% in the first half of 2015, that leaves a further 1.5MT to be divvied up between other destinations which to date have included Spain, Canada, Singapore and Indonesia.
Garcia attributed the strong growth rates to increased production from Asoppitaya's 48 growers and 120 partners, who combined can provide fruit 12 months a year with a high seasons running from February to April and August to October.
Year-round availability is a plus for Belgium-based Special Fruit purchase manager Lieve Michielsen, who took part in the S-GE Swiss Import Promotion Programme (SIPPO) mission.
"If it's year-round it's much easier to promote because if someone is opening the line to have the yellow pitahaya in the shops, you need to have the consistency. That's really important," Michielsen told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"European consumers still have to get to know it. They are now a bit more familiar with the red dragon fruit; the yellow one tastes sweeter but customers need to be aware of the fruit," she said, also mentioning she had seen red dragon fruit production in Vietnam with night lamps to speed up photosynthesis, which may be a contributing factor to the size.
"It [yellow dragon fruit] tends to be available more during Christmas and Easter time."
So far, Special Fruit has imported competing Ecuadorian yellow pitahayas but in small volumes because of the high freight costs.
"The red dragon fruit are cheaper and consumers do not know the difference; just the color difference I think, and then they look at price. They still have to learn about the sweetness of the yellow ones."
Garcia also mentioned the importance of price comparisons to the red variety. To try and tackle this challenge, Asoppitaya has run trial shipments by seafreight to Hong Kong but "they didn't work". However, these trials were not done with controlled atmosphere so there could be room for further experimentation.
On the topic of Ecuadorian competition, Garcia said volumes tended to hit the market from February to April.
"The competition with Ecuador comes from the fact their fruit is bigger than ours, but it's not more attractive," she said.
"Ecuadorian growers get a lot of subsidies to produce and the climate is also different."
She said the Colombian yellow dragon fruit was sweeter; a claim agreed upon by many of the European buyers present who said the taste was much better than what they were used to.
The executive also pointed out the association's growers were GlobalG.A.P. certified and some producers were making the switch from conventional to organic farming. The fruit tends to be scrubbed rather than washed to ensure longer shelf life, and is exported in boxes rather than pallets. Buyers also have the opportunity to request custom-made packaging, which Asoppitaya can organize with local, Colombian materials.
Passiflora in the portfolio
Garcia said the group was also working on the expansion of its crop portfolio to include different fruits from the passiflora (passion fruit) family, such as granadilla and maracuya, due to requests from clients. This is also relevant for buyers like Michielsen, who utilized the mission as an opportunity to meet with existing Colombian passion fruit suppliers.
"In passion fruit I have seen good farms that are well located with very well trained people – the fruit is looking good, it's growing well and the bees are flying around, so they are coming at the right time in the European market. There's a good possibility there," she said.
"You have the [passiflora] edulis which is the brown-colored variety and is the most known in Europe, and you also have the granadilla and maracuya which are more known during Christmas and Easter.
"They all have different tastes - maracuyas are used in curries also while the edulis you can eat with a spoon or mix in anything."
She said infrastructure for passion fruit exports - as well as for avocados and physalis (golden berries) - was all in place to leave from the Port of Cartagena on the Caribbean with 12 days of transit to reach Europe.
"To keep the freshness we always keep it no longer than one week in our warehouse," she said, adding Special Fruit conducted tastings in retail outlets around Europe to raise consumer awareness of more exotic products, including information sheets with recipes.
Another key product discussed by many on the buyer mission was physalis, but Michielsen said more work was needed to raise consumption of the husk-covered, visually appealing fruit.
"It's also becoming a bulk product. Everybody's having it but not a lot of people are eating it - they're using it as a garnish.
"But people need to eat it, because often if someone eats one they'll say 'no, I don't like it', but when you eat three or five you get used to the taste and eat the whole punnet. It's a matter of taste."
Happiness from diversity: a small farmer perspective
Before visiting Asoppitaya's post-harvest facility in Roldanillo where fruit is packed and sent to the treatment facility in Pereira, the delegation took a windy road through lush, green scenery to the idyllic property of grower Juan Alberto Garcia.
Garcia's 9-hectare farm is GlobalG.A.P. certified not just for pitahaya but also in coffee, bananas, plantains and avocados; the latter will be harvested this week for sale to a local cooperative that exports the product.
The dragon fruit are still a few months away from harvest, but the farmer had several spines stuck under the skin of his hand and around his fingernails; a job hazard he is used to after 12 years growing the cactus fruit.
He told www.freshfruitportal.com he was growing 1.5 hectares of the pitahayas with around 4,500 plants, and was planting new trees further up the hill from where the European delegates were walking amongst the plants.
"You have to work a lot, but getting certification makes it more profitable. We're not going to get anywhere if we do nothing," he said.
"My happiness comes from what I have, working in various lots – bananas, avocados, dragon fruit and coffee, producing a bit of each one .
"If it were just one it wouldn't be much. This makes me happy, keeps life fresh."
Stay tuned for more stories this week from the SIPPO buyer mission, as we take you through a wide range of developments in Colombia's produce sector. All articles will be found on our SIPPOColombia 2015 tag page.