Might of Morocco

Being selected as the partner country for Fruit Logistica 2008 was a great honour for Morocco, which for many years now has worked hard to establish a standing among European importers as a reliable supplier of good-quality produce - at reasonable prices.

Partnering with the world’s largest fresh produce event in February this year gave the nation the shot in the arm it needed at international level, says Fatiha Charrat of exporter Delassus, and enabled growers to showcase their wares to the global industry. “Exporters earned a good reputation and grew in confidence as a result of being the partner country,” she says. “Moroccan products are in demand and expectations of them are high. This is definitely the feeling we get at the moment, as our citrus and vegetable campaigns kick off.”

The citrus crop is looking in fine fettle, with rains that have fallen over the last few months having a positive effect on total production. Cultivation is centred in four main areas: the southern Agadir-Marrakech zone, Beni Mellal, the Gharb area and Lower Moulouyia in the north-east.

Producers expect an increase of almost 10 per cent this year in volume, with total production to hit 1.35 million tonnes, against 1.24mt last season. Exports are also expected to increase, by around 12 per cent.

French organics specialist ProNatura operates citrus production in Marrakech and sources vegetables from the Agadir region. “The quality of the organic citrus we market has improved greatly since 1996, when we started growing,” says secretary general Fatima Jamjama. “There are very strict export policies out of Morocco - citrus cannot leave Moroccan soil without the authorisation of an export body, the OACDE, and must meet high standards in terms of sugar level, coloration and juiciness.”

ProNatura expects to produce 1,600t of citrus from the end of November to the end of May. Oranges will constitute almost three-quarters of the volume, with lemons and clementines making up the remainder. “These volumes should increase in the next few years, as we are working with new growers in the Marrakech basin and in Beni Mellal,” says Jamjama.

France is the primary market for ProNatura’s citrus, absorbing 55-60 per cent of volumes, and the UK is the second-largest destination, taking 30 per cent - some 350t are expected to head there this season.

“At the moment, the information we have on citrus leads us to predict a good campaign [for 2008-09]. The OACDE is carrying out tests to verify the juice and sugar levels of the fruit, but the fruit colour is excellent because of the temperature differences between day and night. So we are expecting good results in terms of both volume and quality,” adds Jamjama.

Tomato specialist Azura will continue to develop its operations in the region of Dakhla this season, while its production surface area in Agadir will remain stable. This year, the company predicts it will export 80,000t of fruit and veg, of which nearly 90 per cent will consist of tomatoes. The firm’s overall tomato volumes are on the rise, especially of its ‘Gourmet’ range (plum cherry tomatoes, yellow and red cherry tomatoes, plum cocktail tomatoes, cherry tomatoes on the vine, etc). But Azura is also working hard to develop its citrus and melon offer this season.

“This is our first year of marketing our own citrus production and volumes will stand at 1,500t,” says a spokesman for the company. “This volume will gradually increase in the years to come. The majority of our citrus volumes will be accounted for by small fruits, such as clementines.”

After a sterling first campaign last season with melons, Azura has unveiled a rise in volumes for 2008-09 and predicts it will export 2,500t of Charentais this year. A ‘Gourmet’ melon with high brix levels is also being added to the line-up. “To do this, we have invested in a high-precision machine that detects sugar levels and the quality of each fruit,” says a spokesman. “These fruits will actually be labelled ‘Gourmet Melons’, so that consumers can easily identify them on the supermarket shelf.”

UK importers are equally as excited about the start of the Moroccan season as the growers themselves are. Peter Davis of Lincolnshire-based Davis (Louth) Ltd tells FPJ: “We will be starting on Moroccan citrus next week and we are already bringing in courgettes and tomatoes. We have been doing courgettes since the end of October and they will run through to the end of April.

“The quality is superb [on courgettes and tomatoes] and it has been a very interesting start to the season. There is still some product from the Netherlands around, but it is not great quality. But Morocco is meeting good demand because Spain is doubly short on volume due to cold nights, low light levels and rain. “Morocco is really stealing a march this season,” he adds.

The vegetables ProNatura handles from Morocco are grown in Agadir by the firm’s exclusive production partner, Primeur Bio du Souss (PBS). This season, which kicked off in October, the firm expects to import 7,000-8,000t until the end of May, from 10 farms housing 240 hectares of glasshouses and 300ha of open-field production.

The vegetables grown include courgettes, red, yellow and green peppers, round and vine, Roma and cherry tomatoes, and long and Noa cucumbers. Other products such as potatoes, melons and squash will come on stream later in the season. “The vegetable season is a little delayed, but the quality will be good and volumes will increase swiftly in the coming weeks,” says Jamjama.

ProNatura expects to send 700-800t of Moroccan organic vegetables to the UK in the months to come, largely consisting of courgettes, peppers and cucumbers, and around 350t of citrus will head to the UK. Germany is ProNatura’s primary market for its Moroccan vegetables, absorbing 40 per cent of volumes, followed by France with 25-30 per cent and then the UK, with a share that varies from 15-18 per cent - the majority consisting of courgettes.

While France is traditionally the primary export market for Moroccan produce, increasing numbers of growers are looking to the UK as a viable client. More than five years ago, France was the most important market for Delassus, but the company’s decision to specialise in cherry tomatoes saw it switch its focus to the UK for that product and its grape supplies, among other lines.

The advantages of sending to the UK include the category management system, says Charrat, which, she adds, suits Delassus perfectly. “Prices are fixed from the start of the season and volumes are as well,” she says. “This allows us to concentrate on the specifications and the deliveries, instead of spending each order discussing the price. It gives us more confidence as we go forward.

“However, the specifications for the UK market are sometimes difficult to implement and the heavy traceability demands mean we often have to duplicate documentation.

“There is also the question of language - Morocco’s second language is French. We have problems finding technologists who are efficient and speak English well enough to exchange regularly with their English counterparts.”

But Moroccans have certainly not shied away from meeting the exacting demands of their UK clients. Growers and exporters have been heavily active when it comes to raising their game to meet international standards, and investments are common practice nowadays across the country’s agricultural sector. ProNatura has invested in an insectarium housing supplementary insects to help control pests and limit plant loss; a nursery allowing independent plant production; and a 2,300sqm packhouse built in 2006. “PBS has also now achieved GlobalGAP certification and is certified to organic standards by Ecocert International,” says Jamjama.

Delassus has pulled out all the stops when it comes to certification and Charrat believes working to the necessary standards for the European market has now become a matter of course among Moroccan shippers. “The majority of exporters know and practise international procedures and standards - GlobalGAP and ISO 9001:2000 have become commonplace,” she says.

Delassus recently received ISO 22000 certification and is now working towards achieving Fairtrade accreditation. “The modern farm management techniques we use are progressing all the time,” says Charrat. “We are very satisfied with our yields and output, especially compared to national levels and often compared to international levels. Since focusing our attention on the UK market, we have heard the fears and desires of consumers - their preoccupations are ours, and the subjects that keep cropping up again and again are: how can we guarantee food safety and what measures can we take in case errors occur? And is our farm’s social system an ethical and fair one?

“By implementing ISO 22000 and Fairtrade, we want to reassure and prove that we are as interested in the comfort of our customers as we are our workers and the output of our farms. These are the three pivots on which the philosophy of the Delassus group sits.”

Davis is keen to stress the leaps and bounds that the Moroccan industry has taken in recent years. “There are some really big players in Morocco now,” he says. “Three or four years ago, companies there were looking to go forward and develop in the UK, and were trying to find out how to go about it. They were trading here but via France - they had agents in France and most produce went to Perpignan or Marseille. A lot of product still does that, but more and more is coming direct to the UK now.”

For example, for this campaign ProNatura has put a team on the ground in Morocco, and has developed direct container sendings to Portsmouth, which allows product to reach UK clients just one week after harvest.

The key to Morocco’s success has been its ability to learn from its European neighbours, explains Davis. “A lot of pioneers from France and Spain went over there and trained growers in Morocco in terms of technology and know-how. They invested money in Morocco and government organisations gave growers help too.

“Now we are seeing the second generation of Moroccans come through - they are grateful for the input of the French and the Spanish but now they want to do it themselves, and we are starting to see that swing.

“Some of our customers now will only take Moroccan tomatoes. There is a great variety and quality of the fruit coming out of the country and the growing conditions are excellent. I serve customers who use beef tomatoes for slicing - these have to be firm, and Moroccan product is, so more and more of my customers are looking at Moroccan tomatoes. There is a great variety coming out of the country too - plums, cherries, vines, etc. With citrus as well, we find ourselves working more and more with countries such as Morocco and Turkey and less and less with Spain.”

The cheaper manpower in Morocco and lower land prices also offer advantages, adds Davis.

On the packaging front, Azura has reviewed its packaging options so that each pack now bears more information for the consumer. “The objective of these messages, which are printed on the side of cartons in the form of questions and answers, such as ‘Did you know?’, is to give consumers more information on how Azura’s fruit and vegetables are grown, the controls put in place to guarantee healthy products, our integrated techniques, etc,” says the spokesman.

Last campaign, Azura reached its goal of growing 100 per cent of its products using totally integrated techniques, and is keen to replicate that in 2008-09 and in future years. “To do that, we have reinforced our production and integrated management teams,” says the spokesman. Azura successfully passed its recent audits to renew GlobalGAP, IFS, BRC and ISO 9001:2000 certifications. The firm is now working towards SA 8000 certification.

The company also continues to invest internally and externally in its social activities. For two years now, the group has financed two Dar Taleba (boarding schools for young girls), and has recently part financed the construction of a third boarding school. An internal social action committee composed of farm employees, packhouse employees and managers has also been put in place. The committee evaluates the needs of its employees on the farms and at the packing station, and implements and finances activities aimed at improving living and working conditions.

Irrigation is certainly a problem in Morocco, but Jamjama is quick to point out that it is by no means the only country in the Mediterranean basin to suffer from water shortages. “For some time now, Morocco has taken a number of precautions to control the problem, but the climatic conditions of the past few years have complicated matters,” she says. “Farms in Agadir do not really have this problem as they are in an irrigated zone and they all have wells. But in Marrakech, the problem is largely centred around several citrus farms that are having to draw deeper and deeper for their water.”

In the future, Jamjama believes that Moroccan citrus growers must look to focus on the tastiness of their oranges, in the same way they have already focused on the taste quality of their clementines. “And vegetable growers must maintain their capacity to produce high volumes of good-quality product,” she says.

Morocco’s minister of agriculture has launched a detailed development plan for the country’s horticultural sector known as the ‘Green Morocco plan’.

“In the years to come, agricultural policy in Morocco will centre around four major pillars: guaranteeing food safety, improving revenue for growers, protecting and conserving natural resources and integrating our agriculture with the national and international market,” says Charrat. “This new strategy will therefore focus on internal improvements, putting in place an accompanying policy promoting professional training, introducing new technology, mechanising agriculture and restructuring the agricultural economy on a large scale.”

With the government firmly on board and the international market now waking up to the country’s agricultural potential, there is certainly a feeling of confidence among the growers and suppliers who deal with Morocco. There is a real sense that the country cannot fail to boost its market share in the years to come. “We will be doing more and more work with Morocco and I think it has a great future ahead of it,” adds Davis.