Could fresh mangoes be the next big export crop for Colombia?

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Could fresh mangoes be the next big export crop for Colombia?

The domestic market has been the main domain for the tropical fruit, but a nascent export sector is emerging. 

Any visitor to the fertile lands of Colombia would have to be blind (and maybe lacking a sense of smell) to miss its vast array of delicious fresh fruits, but just a couple of decades ago the only one it exported in any significant quantity was the banana.

Much has changed since then with the South American country seeing strong growth in exports of avocados, physalis/golden berries, passionfruit, pineapples, limes and more.

Colombian sugar mangoes

But one notable absentee in that tropical list is the mango, which certainly is not in short supply either. According to Ministry of Agriculture statistics, the country currently has 24,956 hectares officially registered with the crop. 

Those fields produced 259,072MT worth of mangoes last year.

So why hasn't the fruit taken off in the export arena? At Fresh Fruit Portal, we caught up with Lenar Lozano, managing director of industry association Fedemango, to find out more. 

He said the majority of the fresh fruit is sold in the domestic market, and most exports are in the form of pulp, dried fruit or conserved fruit.

"Currently fresh mangoes are destined for the national market, but it's not like in processed mangoes, with which Colombia has a great international presence," Lozano said.

"We have managed to export small [fresh] volumes and to niche markets. In 2016 we managed to export 403 [metric] tons (MT), which almost doubled from the 283MT of 2015, and we mainly sent to Canada and the European Union," he said, adding the main European destinations were Spain, France and Portugal. 

To put this in perspective, the country is exporting just 0.15% of its mango crop as pure fresh fruit.

"We have forecast a growth in the planted area of 2.5% for next year, which means we'll add 2,000 hectares of mango production," he said.

However, it's one thing to increase the amount of land dedicated to the crop and another to lift yields.

"Currently we have an average yield of 12MT per hectare, although in the interior zones we could reach a higher yield," he said.

"It's a challenge we have ahead as an industry and for us as an association, and as one of our objectives we want to give technical assistance."

Local varieties

Mangoes may be native to India, but over the course of hundreds of years Colombia has come to call certain varieties its own, as is often the case when fruit is transplanted to an entirely new environment where it evolves to take on its own characteristics.

Lozano emphasizes it is Colombia's "native" varieties that have been the most successful in the export market thus far. 

One that has performed well internationally, mostly in Europe, is known as the "sugar mango" (mango de azúcar), grown in the department of Magdalena and a smaller sized fruit.

Another cultivar is known as 'Yulima', grown in the department of Tolima and exported to Canada. 

"Yulima is the most exported variety with around 250MT sent to Canada last season. It is a variety that goes to market niches because of its color and presentation," Lozano said.

He said these two varieties make up 20% of production, while 25% is the 'creole' (criollo) which goes to processing. The majority of the remainder is made up of Tommy Atkins (30%) and Keitt (10%).

Eight-month availability

Given Colombia's privileged geographic position in two hemispheres and its wide range of micro-climates, Lozano said the fruit could be produced eight months per year with two large harvest periods.

"The first harvest starts in April and goes until mid-July, and the second is from October to early December. However, in the coastal departments like Magdalena, the harvest can be two weeks earlier," he said.

Cundinamarca, Tolima and Magdalena are the departments with the highest mango production in the coutnry, representing 68% of the total planted area. More recently, the coastal department of Córdoba has also shown potential in the crop.

"We are seeing a great opportunity for mangoes in that department [Córdoba]. Currently there are 2,000 hectares with the mango varieties Tommy and Keitt," he said.

"This project is led by private entities but they have served as an example of how to come together in a productive cluster. It's an example of how we want the agri-industry to develop as this project is focused on exports."

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