Moroccans bang on time

The history of citric-culture in Morocco dates back to Roman times. Things have changed a bit since then. While the Moroccan citrus industry produces just less than one per cent of the world’s citrus tonnage, it is the fourth largest fresh citrus exporting country and second largest fresh mandarin exporting country in the world, according to 2003 USDA statistics. The European Union takes up most of Morocco’s top-quality citrus exports, with lesser-quality fruit being sent to eastern Europe and Russia.

The total citrus acreage in 2004 is 213,284; 72 per cent being oranges (mainly navels), 26 per cent mandarins (clementines and satsumas), 1.1 per cent lemons and limes, and 0.35 per cent grapefruit and pommelos.

Initial estimates of Moroccan citrus production indicate a slight increase in volumes and exports, especially for mid-season and late orange varieties.

However, swarms of locust moving across Africa were reported in the southern citrus growing areas that account for over half of Morocco’s citrus production. At the time of writing, only minor damage had been encountered, though the threat from locusts is real with the government warning people about the severity of the threat, allocating more than $40 million to control and treat the invasion of locust in the country.

UK importer Hart&Friedman taps into all the citrus growing areas for their supply, says Allan Pearson, responsible for Moroccan citrus. “There has been no adverse weather this year but the serious locust movement has been a concern over the last few weeks. We look forward to a constant citrus supply from Morocco, with continuous shipping lines and the increasing volumes of fruit (now 40 per cent) from the developed container business.”

Citrus farms are relatively large in Morocco in comparison to Spain, with each unit averaging more than 200 acres. The cost of labour is relatively cheap, which is Morocco’s biggest industry advantage. The main growing areas in Morocco - the Souss Valley, the central area, and the oriental region - are localised because of climate, topography and water sources. The central area is humid and has some of the oldest citrus groves, and was at one time the largest citrus-producing area.

In recent years however, the valley has surpassed the central area in production, now growing about half of all oranges and mandarins in Morocco. The oriental area is located in the northeast corner of Morocco near the Mediterranean Sea and has an arid climate and salty soil. Together with the Souss Valley, this area is suitable for growing early clementines.

Morocco’s citrus fruit production for the 2004-05 season is due to reach 1,286,000 tonnes, versus 1,137,000t in 2003-04, representing a rise of 13 per cent says Ahmed Darrab, secretary general of the Moroccan citrus fruit producers association (ASPAM).

The quality will also be satisfactory despite delays in maturation.” The association admits that 2004-05 production is still dependent on weather conditions for the weeks to come, considering that milder temperatures and early rainfalls can improve the produce calibre. “Some 521,000t of citrus fruit is due to be exported, compared to 437,000t in 2003-04, an increase of 19 per cent,” says Darrab. “Last season was labelled one of the weakest in years. The weak volumes were attributed to several factors - lower production and stiff competition. There were fears that the falls in volumes of fruit exported would affect income and the profitability of citrus orchards, whose costs of operation are already very high.”

Darrab explains that production is up this year because of better climatic conditions, and trees have yielded more because of plentiful rainfall. He says: “Already 35,000t of citrus fruit has been exported to Canada and Russia, and UK sendings will commence in the last week of November and increase in December. Clementines are the first to be sent, then Navel oranges will start followed by Sanguine.”

In relation to varieties, new clementine varieties have been planted in Nour, in the Souss area, with 40,000-45,000t already exported, and 10,000-12,000t of Afourer, which are grown near Marrakech. “These will be exported to meet the demand in Europe,” says Darrab. Varietal trends include new clementine plantings such as Nour, Larache, Nules, and Sidi Aissa. Other varieties grown include Berkria, Bruno, Marisol, Codoux, Oroval, Esbal, Muska and Guerdant. Mandarin hybrids such as Ortanique and Nova are also grown.

ASPAM has an agricultural programme to aid in orchard regeneration by financially assisting growers with the cost of planting new trees. “Growers receive 10 per cent of the required investment to help them with costs; on average it costs 150,000 dirham/ha (£9,417) so the grower receives 15,000 dirham.

The 2004 GAIN report published by the USDA foreign agricultural service states that in the long run however, Moroccan citrus production is not expected to increase significantly despite government and grower organisation plans to increase the planted areas, reconvert to new varieties and replace old trees.

Souss producers face critical water shortages, which add significantly to the production costs. In the Gharb areas, orchards are old and are not being replaced actively. The report says that although “there might be an increase in planting in some years, the average yearly planting over a long period has been below what was initially planned to maintain adequate growth of citrus production. The low planting suggests that Morocco might be unable to even fulfil the increasing local demand for some varieties of citrus in the future.”

This season however, exports are expected to increase in line with production, with the contract markets - Russia, Saudi Arabia and Canada - accounting for over a third of fresh citrus exports each year of programmed volumes. EU consumers continue to be the main outlet for Morocco despite a downward demand trend in the last few years. This decline in EU Moroccan citrus imports may indicate that some export groups have problems complying with complex EU industry standards, says Darrab, and partly explains the recent emphasis on non-EU markets, such as Russia, which in general buys lower quality, cheaper fruit not suitable for the EU marketplace.

Pearson is visiting Morocco this week to inspect the growing regions and discuss strategy with suppliers: “The majority of clementines are sent to the US and Canada during November but as December approaches, Morocco has a market strategy for considering Europe. The first major departure for the UK will be a vessel on November 26 arriving in Portsmouth in the first week of December, which starts the campaign. Simultaneous to that will be shipments to Rotterdam, which gets the ball rolling for Europe.”

Pearson explains that because of Ramadan, there has been a slight delay in UK market probing but now boats are leaving for Europe. “In December, a percentage of UK business is programmed but the majority of produce is playing in the open markets - whether there are two or five vessels destined for Portsmouth in December will be better read after the value of the produce has been established in two weeks time when we have seen the market’s reaction to it.”

First UK shipments will be 95 per cent clementines but Pearson says wholesale business demands Spanish Satsumas at this time of year, and it has become the situation in recent years whereby Moroccan citrus is considered from January until July. He says: “When Morocco comes on board the price of Spanish clems and satsumas are set as the benchmarks. At the start of their campaign, Moroccans are testing the value in the EU but already have secured prices from programmes in North America and are better placed to play the free market. We expect 5,000t of clems in December and more orange volumes in January.”

There have been difficulties in the past with producer groups agreeing on shipping times, but this year arrangements have been perfect, says Pearson: “The season is bang on with when it was expected. The first signs are fruit is in good order although the fruit is small at the start of the season - naturally it’s a smaller-sized crop. What happens to supplies after January depends on the established commitments they have to other countries. Early fruit now goes to Canada - eight-10 years ago, Morocco would send vessels with fruit to the UK in November only to find out the fruit was too small and green, it overlapped with Spanish fruit, and was worth little money, so they cleverly found a market for the early volumes. Moroccans suffered years ago and have realised their natural slot.”

H&F works with three countries to ensure continuity of citrus lines because supply cannot be achieved only with Morocco, and with two suppliers in Morocco to diversify sourcing of different fruit varieties and sizes in the portfolio, and to move through the season with continuous supplies.

“The Moroccan local market is good. Growers don’t need to send pallets to Europe to get prices as they can realise sensible values from the internal market without the costs of exporting and UK requirements,” says Pearson. “But the loyalty factor from Morocco is prevalent - you have appointed partnerships with the groups you deal with and we visit them before the start of the season, and in turn they visit us mid-season to see how distribution is progressing. The importers stay loyal to the brands such as Maleka and Delassus and wholesalers get to know the growers, which is laudable for providing continuity.

“With the major exporters, standards are moving on with the packaging, the quality factor has improved with the three major groups having similar products for this market,” adds Pearson.

In the long-term, the GAIN report states that trade prospects for fresh citrus are pessimistic - local production cannot keep up with the increasing market demand. The EU granted duty-free quotas for clementines (168,000mt) and oranges (326,000mt) were not filled last season and local market prices have improved such that growers are avoiding the risks and payment delays involved with exporting.

The mandarin industry continues to grow and shows potential for US trade, again having the advantage of cheap labour. “The sector is expanding into either early or late-season mandarins,” says Darrab “and diversifying export markets, specifically targeting the US are two industry goals.” However, water availability is the greatest limitation to growth.