Pink Lady AFL

Thierry Mellenotte (centre left) at Asia Fruit Logistica in Hong Kong

French apples were typically well represented at this year’s Asia Fruit Logistica exhibition in Hong Kong. With the spring frosts reducing volumes throughout Europe, many analysts have regarded this season as an unmissable opportunity for French growers, who have been less impacted by the unfavourable weather conditions than their European competitors. However, that is not how French growers and exporters view the situation.

“This current opportunity makes me fear next season,” says Marc Rauffet, CEO of Innatis. “We are long-term thinkers, so it is the future that is important. This season is just another opportunity to ensure we are on the right path. We have 1.5m trees and we plant 150,000 trees per year. The idea is not to have a great result in one particular season. The aim is to create a future where our clients are eagerly waiting for our fruits to become available.”

Rauffet hopes that the lower volumes will result in higher prices across the board, but is aware that there is no guarantee. “It is our wish,” he says. “We want to maximise returns for our orchards. You can add maybe 3 per cent through marketing, but the real losses and gains are made in the orchard, so that is our focus. We’ve planned for the next ten years at Innatis – we will double the investment in our orchards in 2018. Why? To be competitive for the next decade. From last year, we started planning for automation, planting using our own homegrown method.”

Specialties like Pink Lady, organic variety Juliet, Choupette and Honeycrunch account for around half of the volumes at Innatis. These more exclusive varieties allow the company to better predict prices for the season to come, says Rauffet. With Royal Gala, on the other hand, there are 500-plus players, he explains, making it impossible to anticipate what the price will be come January.

Since China is also a major Northern Hemisphere apple producer, such exclusive varieties help to create a point of difference and avoid excessive competition on the Asian market. Blue Whale’s new premium apple brands, Novablue and Liliblue, do just that. “We started two years ago with Novablue,” says Marc Peyres. “Last year, we had 2,000 tonnes, this year we’ve got 6,000 tonnes, and we will soon have 10,000-15,000 tonnes. We do regular volumes every week to Vietnam and Thailand, as well as to China. The crop is increasing gradually, so we don’t want to open up too many markets all at once. Our plan for this season is to do more to Malaysia, Thailand and China.”

Liliblue is also ideal for the Asian market, says Peyres, as it is selected from the best Fuji apples produced in the south-west of France. “It is a smooth Fuji and a high-quality eating apple,” he says. “These are the most important criteria today. We started a few years ago, and slowly but surely, the apple has developed its market share in markets including Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.”

According to Pink Lady Europe’s Thierry Mellenotte, taste buds are changing across Asia, with many more consumers open to an apple with “a bit more personality”. “In the past, some consumers in Asia thought Pink Lady was too sour,” he said. “In Vietnam, for example, Big C did some tastings, and Pink Lady was really well received. In Asia, the market is becoming more sophisticated, so we have increased the quality specifications for our shipments to the market.”

In Asia, Pink Lady mainly goes to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, with small volumes heading to Hong Kong, Indonesia and India. “We export around 1,500 tonnes to Asia,” says Mellenotte. “We should do better than that. Even if we believe there is still great potential to develop the brand in Europe, we need to diversify our platform and find increased value for our growers. The look, the brand strategy – both are right for this market. But we want to move quicker.”

Pink Lady’s strategic plan to 2025 is to boost volumes to 215,000 tonnes, an increase of 100,000 tonnes. “Traditional European markets will not be able to absorb all these volumes,” says Mellenotte, “so we need to develop in Asia and we need to develop in the Middle East in order to maintain value for our growers.”

David Socheleau of exporter Apple-Bird reports that consumption in Asia is growing. “For us it’s a good market with good opportunities,” he says. “China is one target, but it is a difficult market with complex distribution links and strong competition from Chinese apples. Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand are good markets for us, and we have high expectations for Vietnam, which opened up a couple of seasons ago. This year, Royal Gala now accounts for 40 per cent of our crop, and this is the most popular variety in Asia.”

The company is also developing its Sweet Sensation pears, grown predominately in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, on the Asian market. “The variety is firm, juicy and sweet, and it is good for travelling,” says Socheleau. “It also looks unique. It is a bicolour pear with a shape that Asian consumers are more accustomed to than the longer Conference pear. We have high hopes for Sweet Sensation in Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia.”

Cardell Export’s Daniel Corbel agrees on the potential of the Vietnamese market, which offers more opportunities for growth than well-established markets like Singapore. “The future is in Vietnam because of its population size,” he says, “so we are looking to develop there. Singapore is a steady market, but we’ve been there since 1975 so will have to work hard to reach a higher level. In Malaysia we are progressing well, while Thailand and Indonesia are quite complicated due to issues with cold treatment and licensing. We also send regularly to Hong Kong.”

The jewel in Cardell Export’s assortment remains the organic Juliet apple, according to Corbel. “It is doing well everywhere,” he says. “Since 2008/09, we have been introducing Juliet, and every year it has progressed. But it takes time, even on the French market. Juliet is perfect for the Asian market, as it’s both sweet and organic. People here like sweet fruit and they have big concerns about food safety and pesticide residues.”

For Rauffet, the key is to look at each market in Asia individually. “The Asian market is not one piece or one face,” he says. “It is a large continent made up of lots of different complementary markets. Vietnam is not Thailand. Thailand is not Singapore. You cannot compare Japan and China. They are all so different. So we have to know exactly who is who and what is the need of each market and each client. Singapore has high-class supermarkets, but I see it as a very mature market, whereas Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia offer more opportunities for growth. We have to adapt to each market and find the right partners in each.”