Costa Rican watermelon exports to soar thanks to hard-hit competitors
Costa Rican watermelon exports are expected to rise significantly in the first half of the year in response to setbacks in supply from the country's main competitors, Mexico and Guatemala.
In conversation with www.freshfruitportal.com, Pura Fruta general manager Randall Benavides explained which markets he expected would see the highest growth in demand, and the challenges involved with exporting to North America.
"El Niño is particularly affecting Guatemala, which was one of the countries hit hardest in terms of watermelon production. Their crops were affected by both an excess of water and a lack of water," Benavides said.
"El Niño has affected the north more than the central region. In fact, the effects of El Niño on watermelon crops in the central region have actually been favorable. In the part of Costa Rica where watermelon is produced, in the Guanacaste province throughout the Pacific, central and southern regions, the effects have been positive.
"This is because the effects of drought in these regions are easily managed because of the strong irrigation systems we have there."
Other crops in the country have suffered due to the weather anomaly, such as tomatoes, cabbage and carrots, according to Benavides.
"But our company has not seen many negative affects as a result of El Niño," he said.
Because of the watermelon crop damage seen north of Costa Rica, Pura Fruta expects to grow significantly by supplementing the lack of supply in Europe, the U.S., the Caribbean and Canada.
"We estimate that the company will see a generalized growth. We’re thinking of growing exports to Canada, the Caribbean and Europe.
"Overall we expect to see 20-30% growth in exports to these regions due to the current undersupply in supermarkets.
"A lot of this growth will depend on the effects of El Niño and how hot it gets in Europe, because watermelons are really linked to weather factors. The hotter it gets, the more watermelons are sold, at least in our experience. So we're hoping for a good summer in Europe," he said.
Europe is the region where Pura Fruta is seeing the most demand, specifically France and Central Europe in general.
"What happens is, consumers in the United States and Canada demand seedless watermelons, and our watermelons are produced with seeds. But there is not much supply of seedless watermelon. Despite this, the market continues to demand seedless.
"Producing seedless watermelons is more expensive, more risky, and there is not much production of this in Costa Rica.
"So we're waiting for the market to react and to grow demand for all types of watermelon, including those with seeds."
Pura Fruta produces a variety of watermelon called Quetzali.
"The quality is much more uniform. In general, watermelons from Costa Rica have really stood out because of their Brix level, and their so-called 'red meat', their texture, their shelf life. The quality satisfies the consumer, and it combines all the factors the market requires: quality, price, standards and size," he said.
Pura Fruta is currently selling a kilo of the Quetzali selection between US$0.60 to US$0.95 per kilogram, but Benavides hopes this will increase to US$1.10 per kilogram this year.
According to Benavides, the outlook is positive and consumers trust the quality of Costa Rican produce.
"[Costa Rican] growers have understood that the use of methods like Global GAP, Euro GAP and quality control systems build clients' trust in the product’s quality. International buyers trust in Costa Rican waterrmelons.
Pura Fruta recently saw its first shipment of watermelons to Cuba and plans to expand exports to neighboring island nations.
"We've been doing business with Cuba for four years selling different products. We've already obtained the necessary authorization to do business with the island nation.
"We will also be doing business with Martinique and Puerto Rico.
"In Cuba, demand for watermelon is on the rise because of an increase in tourism due to the time of year. We will be sending 11 container ships to Cuba within two months," he said.
Regarding other products, Pura Fruta expects to see similar effects stemming from El Niño for onions, cabbage and carrot crops, but not until the second half of the year.
"Costa Rica is the fifth largest country in terms of produce exports, and this development depends highly on the country's capacity to commercialize its products," said Benavides.