Fred Searle travels to the East African nation as it begins to export Hass for the very first time. The aim: to establish the country as a trusted supplier and help lift small-scale farmers out of poverty
With Hass avocado plantings booming across the world – not least in Peru, Colombia and Kenya – you would be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much need for another country to get in on the act. But outside the summer peak, from May to October, avocado supply to Europe is lower, and buyers are continually looking for new sources in a bid to ensure continuity of supply. This is becoming increasingly important as climate change takes hold, making growing conditions harder to predict.
One country that has just embarked on its own Hass avocado journey is Uganda – and hopes are high that the East African nation can one day become a major player in exports to Europe and beyond. Producers will be looking to emulate the success of neighbouring countries Kenya and Tanzania. Indeed, following rapid expansion in the past decade, Kenya became the world’s sixth-largest producer of avocados in 2020, reaching a volume of 322,000 tonnes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN.
For Uganda, its’s still very early days, and the beginning of 2023 marked the start of its commercial Hass production. Up until now, growers have instead produced local, green-skinned varieties, predominantly for the domestic market and the Middle East. But now there is a government push in Uganda to boost exports in various fruits and vegetables, and Hass avocado has been identified as a priority crop. It is the avocado variety with the greatest export potential thanks to its longer shelf life, fast tree maturity, and high yields.
Post-Covid, the Ugandan government wants to ramp up exports across a wide range of industries to drive economic growth and recover the 300,000 jobs that are estimated to have been lost during the Covid pandemic.
The stated aim of Uganda’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development (PACEID) is to overcome bottlenecks that prevent the country from “fully harnessing its industrial and export potential”. The body wants to help Uganda double its total national exports from $6.6bn to $12bn by 2027. And the fruit and vegetable sector is where PACEID is targeting some of the fastest growth, with ambitions to boost shipments by 60 per cent in that period.
Agricado Farms, an up-and-coming producer and exporter in Uganda’s Central Region, hopes to lead this charge. The supplier, which has GlobalGAP and GRASP certification, is part of a larger group of companies involved in printing and packaging, manufacturing, IT services, and coffee processing.
Its 400-acre farm was set up in 2019 with the aim of producing Hass avocado and macadamia nuts for export to Europe and the Middle East. Having planted its first orchard, the business expects harvesting to begin towards the end of 2024. And in February, Agricado sent its first exports of Hass, grown by a number of smaller growers that supply its packhouse in the capital, Kampala. In addition, the company has started a project to grow, certify and sell its own high-quality Hass seedlings.
“Right now, our main market for avocados is the Middle East [mainly Dubai] but we want to try to get them into Europe and potentially the UK,” says company director Aliya Hajee. “We’re already starting to see enquiries from Spain and other parts of Europe, so excitement is growing – both in Uganda and abroad.”
Building up containers
Between 2021 and 2022 Agricado planted 50 acres of Hass, with plans to add a further 100 acres in 2023 and another 100 acres in 2024. And while Hajee waits for these trees to come into production, her business is also growing approximately 35 acres of red, green and habanero chillies, for export to the Netherlands and other EU countries.
The limited volume of avocado that the supplier currently receives from external growers means shipping full containers – via the Port of Mombasa in Kenya – isn’t yet possible. But as previously mentioned, Agricado already airfreights smaller volumes of Hass, as well as local green-skin varieties, to Middle Eastern markets.
“We are currently in the process of mapping our supply,” says Hajee. “A lot of farmers are starting to approach us and say ‘I have 50 acres here’ or ‘I have 100 acres there’. We’re trying to piece it all together and understand how quickly we can start building up containers. We intend to start shipping containers in 2023.”
When it comes to production, Agricado’s managing director Harald van Aubel believes Uganda is well placed to establish itself on the global market. “Thanks to the diversity of altitudes and seasons in Uganda, we will have avocado all year round, which is quite exceptional from a global point of view,” he says. And given avocado trees’ high water requirement, the country’s two rainy seasons – from March to May and from September to December – should work in growers’ favour so long as their orchards have proper drainage (to avoid root rot).
With a view to bringing more growers into the fold and delivering agronomy training, Agricado has plans to launch its own ‘out-growers scheme’ for the other farms that supply it. Hajee says the first steps will be to raise awareness, train growers, grow seedlings, and sell subsidised seedlings to farmers, “so they start to understand the potential around Hass production and how to do it well”.
Asked whether she is concerned by the potential for a flooded international market, both this year and in future, Hajee says the concept of ‘green gold’ is “something we have to monitor”. Nevertheless, she sees clear potential for Uganda, especially in the February-March window when global supply is lower. “I think it will be about finding the right marketing channels and trying to tap into the right supply windows based on the seasonality of Uganda’s different growing regions,” she says.
An important barrier to entry for some small-scale farmers will be investment, however. The Ugandan government has supported Hass nursery operators to produce and sell subsidised seedlings to a limited pool of growers. But it still appears to be formulating its strategy on production standards and regulations. And so far, there has been no direct government support for farmers looking to begin Hass production. This is something Hajee and others would like to see change as the country tries to break into what can be a lucrative global market.
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