Challenges and opportunities in the citrus market in Antioquia

Challenges and opportunities in the citrus market in Antioquia


By: Juan Pablo Duque - Persian Manager

In this new podcast we bring you information about the citrus market in Antioquia and its potential. The department has the second-best yield per ton harvested per hectare of citrus products in the country, which shows the quality of the soils and the ideal climatic conditions for these crops, mainly Tahiti limes and oranges, which represented almost five million dollars in exports for the department in 2019.

Today we have as a guest Juan Pablo Duque, manager of Equilibria Agro, a company dedicated to leading agribusiness projects such as Persian Limes. Persian Limes consists of 2,000 hectares of organic Tahiti lime which transforms the lives of farmers with an innovative social model via the export of fruit of the requisite quality to international markets.

Interviewer (I): Juan Pablo, welcome and let’s go straight to the first question. We know that the value of world citrus exports was 15 billion dollars in 2019, with an average annual growth of 2.5% over the last 4 years. The main imported products are oranges (24)%, followed by lime and mandarins (26% and 19% respectively). This means that there is still a high potential for the region and the entire chain. What do you think are the challenges and opportunities that Antioquia has in this market?

JP: Firstly, Antioquia has a privileged location. It has access to the ports in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and is benefitting from the investment Colombia is making in developing its infrastructure, including dual carriageways, tunnels and viaducts. Additionally, a port is being developed in the north of Antioquia, so we are in a very important logistical location.

This allows the fruit to move easily, which is very important to investors.

Another important issue is that in some areas of Antioquia there are very favourable agroclimatic conditions for citrus. For example, in the case of Southwest Antioquia, where there are some important crops due to their size and age (mainly orange), there are very interesting developments and productivity in the industry. Also, thanks to several decades of work in developing citrus fruits, there is a skilled workforce in the Southwestern regions. It is not vast, but it is there.

Another important point is the volume of fruit available. The advantage being that if growers work together we can generate strong synergies in terms of marketing. This is important since a small crop can hardly be commercialized successfully, but where there are several of us we can do interesting and important things.

Another important challenge is the development of qualified labour, which is lacking in the area in which we operate. We get labourers coming to us from other industries and that entails a learning curve, and mistakes are made along the way. We hope to establish training programs so that the people who come to work in citrus crops have knowledge of these agricultural practices; how to sow, how to prune and other relevant skills. Additionally, we struggle to find qualified labour for administrative positions; agronomists, experts in irrigation, drainage and certifications. This is a challenge, we need to have access to qualified people to help us grow our operations.

In terms of world production of citrus, Spain is in the lead with more than $ 3.5 billion dollars in exports. The growth potential for citrus cultivation in Antioquia is more than 200,000 hectares in the Southwest and Western subregions, while the priority markets for attracting investment are the United States and the Netherlands. For their part, the main citrus importers are located in North America and Europe.

Therefore, we can conclude that the main investment opportunities for citrus cultivation in Antioquia are: (1) developing strategic alliances with local owners and producers, (2) the construction of fruit collection centres for their proper selection, preparation and export, and, (3) expanding the total cultivated area through the purchase of new land. These are all activities that Persian Limes has been able to visualize and materialize in order to continue strengthening and leading this market in the region.

I would say that in terms of challenges, the modernization of the Colombian countryside is very important. It is important to make the investments that allow us to increase productivity. For example, irrigation is very important, drainage is also very important, internal logistics, information systems ... If you have a small crop of 50 trees you remember what you did. But when you already have 52 lots or 150,000 plants, you need information systems. We have our own information system and others that support us with data analysis, and that allow us to be able to properly manage our operations. This will, consequently, ensure the quality of the fruit and the best productivity.

Another issue is certifications. International markets buy from you if you have certain certifications. You can select what you want; if you want to differentiate yourself by having more certifications there are some that are more demanding than others. There are some that are minimal requirements, such as Global GAP, which you must have to be able to export to Europe. Others focus on social responsibility, organics or the environment. You can choose what you want to do in terms of strategy. Certifications make it easier for you to sell abroad and help organize you internally, so they have that additional administrative advantage.

Another major challenge is supplier development. In the countryside you see a lot of informality in the way labour is hired and fruit is bought. There is an important challenge there, and we have been working on formalizing purchasing with invoices, paying through bank accounts…. formalizing the system. All of our workers have bank accounts, they are paid all the requisite benefits and they are all under formal contract and have stable jobs.

In terms of the global market, if we manage to win a space for tropical oranges in international markets it would be a great success. The Colombian orange is not orange, it is green, but it has an incredible flavour and if we can get the market to accept this it would be a great achievement. This would allow us to export. This is something we have to work on in terms of marketing and communication, along with the guilds, validating its green colour attribute as a good thing, like an exotic variety. We have to launch our fruit into the international market as an exotic variety.

Regarding opportunities in the lime market, they are not as big as with avocado, but there are some opportunities in some markets, namely Europe, the United States and Asia. Since their diets already include lime in both food and drink, they have significant per capita consumption.

Another opportunity that we see, and perhaps the most important, is our purpose. Our purpose is to transform lives through sustainable agriculture. We as a country must develop the countryside and capitalize on opportunities to provide a better life for our people. Colombia has enormous potential if it can develop its agriculture further. If we can do things with quality, with volume, we have an opportunity to reach those international markets with healthy returns.

The beneficiaries, then, are going to be the people and communities that are in the rural areas of the country; this is where we need to take the opportunities presented. I believe the greatest opportunity we have is that we can develop Colombian agriculture and offer these international opportunities to farmers who for decades have made it possible for us to have food in the national market. We want the fruits of our farmers to be available not only in the domestic market, but also in international markets. This will demand larger production areas and, as a consequence, will generate more jobs and therefore a stronger economy.

We thank Juan Pablo Duque from Persian Limes and all of our listeners for connecting with ACI Medellín, look out for a new episode on the internationalization of the city and the region, soon!