Q: How has United Producers of Mexico evolved since it was launched?
A: Four years ago, we started with one mission: helping growers become exporters. Along the way, we have created different services to support them in this process, such as workshops, trade missions and research programs. Our goal is to connect the European market with the Mexican agricultural sector. The first step was to approach Mexican growers’ associations. At first, we were focused primarily on Michoacan, but have since expanded our activities to other states. We started with a focus on avocados but we now work with bananas, limes, oranges, mangos, papaya, berries and asparagus. Most grower associations export significant volumes but we also work with small-scale producers. From the beginning, it was clear that many things had to be improved. While some European importers work directly with Mexican growers to professionalize production, there was a clear need among growers to understand what was happening in the European market. We contacted importers in the Netherlands, where we have our main office, to understand their demands. The Netherlands is still the main transit market for fresh produce in Europe. Many importers in other European countries have facilities in Rotterdam and the surrounding areas.
Q: What role do your trade missions and workshops play in helping companies become exporters?
A: We have organized nine trade missions to the Netherlands to date. The goal is for grower associations to increase their understanding and strengthen their relationships with importers and vice versa. Sometimes we organize these missions around large agricultural events. Overall, importers operate according to the rules of the market. Grower associations think that once they have a Dutch client, they are set. However, there are many details to exporting which need to be organized. They need to know the labeling requirements for produce, for example. An inadequate label can turn into a big problem when products arrive at Dutch customs. You are talking about shipments of thousands of boxes.
Q: How do you help growers to complete these export procedures?
A: To assist in various processes, share appropriate logistics protocols, we organize events in Mexico in a variety of locations, including Jalisco, Michoacan and Guanajuato. Growers can register for these events. During these technical workshops we address a number of themes. One of these is post-harvest management. We have been working with Wageningen University, Mexican government research bodies and national grower associations to improve quality control processes in Mexico. Wageningen University conducted its own research in post-harvest processes to determine best practices.
In the area of quality control, growers tend to have their own protocols. Together with Control Union Mexico, a Dutch certification bureau, we work to help growers become certified. We often include certification topics when we hold workshops. In the past, we organized an event where we invited certification agencies to present their programs and meet growers. United Producers of Mexico has since started Mexico’s first independent quality control program together with Control Union. The amount of assistance to growers depends on what the grower wants. It is an on-demand service. Often, growers who are conducting their first exports will seek more guidance on quality control to ensure that they are following all the necessary protocols.
One of the issues is that certification costs money. While a product like avocado can generate a decent income, small-scale berry producers, for example, struggle to generate the investment for certification. We have approached the Mexican government and state government bodies to see if they can support these farmers with loans through Financiera Nacional de Desarollo Agropecuario, for example. Importers generally do not pay for certification procedures for growers.
Q: What is the difference between exporting to Europe and exporting to the US?
A: Michoacan is the only state that is USDA certified to export avocados to the US. There seems to be also a political component to this situation. There are eight other states producing avocados in Mexico, with Jalisco being the largest. Jalisco and other states are now specializing in exporting to other markets, such as Canada, Japan and the EU. These states are very professional in their handling of export procedures. Exporting to the US is relatively easy. In Uruapan alone, there are more than 50 packaging stations for exports. To export overseas, however, you are dealing with other factors, such as putting products on a boat. There are different EU import rules. Lately, European rules have become stricter, including standards related to social and environmental practices. The primary certifications for working conditions are SMETA and GRASP from the Good Agricultural Practices organization (GAP).
Q: What efforts are being made to improve the logistics between the Netherlands and Mexico?
A: Over the last year and a half, we have been working intensely to create a direct shipping line with the Netherlands. When we started, we could not understand why transport from Peru to Europe would take 14 days and transport from Mexico to the Netherlands would take between 21 and 27 days. The reason for this was volume. There was a lot of shipping from Europe to Mexico, but not the other way around. A certain volume needed to be reached to allow a direct route. We started gathering support for such a route through our own media and through agricultural media. We held several meetings with charter shipping companies that organize special charter trips for particular transports at particular times in the year, for example the melon harvest in Costa Rica. Charter trips were attempted in Mexico 20 years ago but were not successful. Now, with increased interest from Europe, the timing is right. Our agency first held pre-registration events for Dutch and other EU importers. Then we opened an online registration option and many large importers from around Europe signed up. We expect the first charter shipments to take place between Veracruz and the Dutch cities of Flushing or Rotterdam in July-August this year. This is going to be a major game changer, reducing the boat trip from more than 20 days to 12 to 14 days.
Q: What are the benefits of a shorter sea connection?
A: The primary impact of this will be that avocados can be consumed faster, which means better quality. The current time between the moment an avocado is picked and when it is sold at a supermarket is about 30 days. After picking, it has to go to a packaging station, then a harbor, then a boat and is finally distributed through the importer. During transport, avocados are kept at a temperature where they remain “asleep.” However, with fresh products, keeping them cool is similar to keeping humans in a coma and the longer they stay in this state, the harder it is to deliver a good quality when they are brought back to life. Another benefit of faster shipping is that growers can be paid quickly. With a shorter trip, the grower sees a faster return on investment.
United Producers of Mexico was founded in 2016 with the mission to connect Mexican growers with the European market. The organization arranges trade missions and workshops for growers and has implemented its own quality control program.
Everard van Zoelen, President of ISAOSA, Lia Bijnsdorp, Managing Director of United Producers of Mexico and Jeroen Posma, Founder & CEO of Mexico Business have been nominated for the title of “Entrepreneur of the Year 2020” by Holland House Mexico. You can cast your vote here.