NZ Avocado CEO talks greater Asian focus, second season in China and industry growth

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NZ Avocado CEO talks greater Asian focus, second season in China and industry growth

The New Zealand avocado industry is aiming to significantly increase the proportion of exports going to Asian markets over the coming years, amid expectations for a sharp production rise in Australia - currently its leading market by far.

Currently, around 70% of New Zealand's avocado exports go to Australia. But a plethora of new plantings there, combined with opportunities elsewhere, have the industry seeking greater market diversification. spoke to Jen Scoular, CEO of NZ Avocado, to hear more about the country's future plans.

"[Australia] is our closest market. We've been in it for nearly 20 years and we've built very strong relationships with the retailers and wholesalers," she said. The last decade, in particular, has seen substantial consumption growth in the market, she said.

But New Zealand competes mainly with supplies from Western Australia, which is in line for explosive growth. In fact, an industry source in 2016 said the region could see a four-fold rise in volumes in the coming years.

"There have been significant new plantings of avocados in Western Australia," Scoular said. "So we are acknowledging that there will be a large increase in the volume coming to the Australia market during the summer period when both New Zealand and Western Australian production is harvested."

Understanding Asian avocado markets

Over the last five years, the New Zealand avocado industry has received a government investment that supports primary industries. Scoular said NZ Avocado used much of that funding to develop and better understand Asian markets.

NZ Avocado now has digital platforms in a range of Asian markets with strong growth potential. These include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and China, which granted New Zealand avocado access in January 2018. There is also activity in India and Taiwan.

"We've gone from pretty much no Facebook followers to over 125,000 in our markets in the last three years," Scoular said. "That's been a very strong push to create those digital platforms, talking to consumers and encouraging the conversation with them around the versatility of avocados.

"We need to understand what attributes of avocados are of value to the consumer. So it's about market development and market knowledge - understanding the consumer and matching avocado attributes to their needs."

The New Zealand avocado industry has a goal of sending 50% of its exports to Asia by 2023. Scoular said the industry was perhaps a couple of years behind on this, as Australia has remained an excellent market, but it will surely reach that figure in the near future.

Second full avocado export season into China

One Asian market poised to see strong growth is China. New Zealand shipped small volumes during its inaugural 2018-19 season and is expecting an uptick this year.

"It has been a significant success for New Zealand to gain access to the China market. Obviously it has the potential to be an absolutely huge market for us," Scoular said.

"New Zealand is only around 1.5% of world avocado production, and we were entering the Chinese market when the big players, Mexico, Chile and Peru, had been there for between three and ten years. So our exporters needed to look at the market and say 'how do we create a niche channel for New Zealand avocados?' We know we need to do everything right to get into China and do well there."

The industry has created some good relationships in the market, and the fruit moved through the system as anticipated.

"It was quite low volumes last year, so we're building on that for the 2019-20 season. We are anticipating that volumes will go up quite quickly over the next three years into China," she said. The fruit was sold through e-commerce channels, as well as high-end bricks-and-mortar retailers.

2019-20 New Zealand avocado season expectations

The New Zealand avocado industry is expecting to export around 3.7m trays during the season now getting underway. The export campaign typically runs from August through February, but it can supply the New Zealand market year-round.

The export forecast would mark an increase over last year's 2.9m trays - which came about in part due to an irregular bearing and wet growing conditions. But it would be below the record 4.7m trays exported in the 2016-17 season.

This season's estimate may have been higher if it had not been for rain during fruit set last October and November. But Scoular said that more recently conditions have been excellent.

"The last couple of weeks we've had a really great winter. We've had lots of sunshine, it's been drier, and we haven't had frosts, which obviously impact the buds for next season," she said.

"So the growing season this year has definitely been better. Our trees are looking in good health."

New plantings to lead to future growth

New Zealand avocados are planted on the country's North Island - one of the world's coolest growing regions for the crop. Around 60% of orchards are in the Bay of Plenty and 40% in Northland - to the north of Auckland.

But according to Scoular, those proportions will likely even out over the coming years.

"We have currently got just under 4,000 productive hectares, and there have been a further 1,000 hectares planted over the last one to three years - most of those in Northland," she said.

The new hectarage is largely from new players investing in the avocado industry, either large growers or syndicates, she said.

"There are also a number of Māori landowners who are looking at avocados as an option for their land. And we're seeing some conversation from sheep and beef or dairy farms into avocados," she said.

She noted the New Zealand avocado industry is very sustainable, with growing regions receiving abundant rainfall.

The industry is hoping to showcase its sustainability attributes if it is successful in September in winning its bid to host the World Avocado Congress 2023.

The event, which takes place every four years, will take place in Colombia in a few weeks' time. At the end of the congress, attendees will vote on the location for the next edition.

"One of the things that we are very keen to talk about is the fact that we are ready to showcase the sustainability of New Zealand orchards in a world that is increasingly questioning the viability and sustainability of horticultural crops," she said.

"New Zealand is ready to talk about what we are doing to ensure a sustainable avocado industry going forward."


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