Caribbean Exotics: a little tropicana to our table

Canadians may not have heard of the Antioquia province in Colombia, but there’s a fair chance they have tasted some of the produce grown there.  Because tropical fruits from farmers working with C.I. Caribbean Exotics S.A. in the foothills of the Andes are now stocked by most major supermarkets across the country.

Two years after the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was negotiated, exporters like Caribbean Exotics are opening up new trade opportunities.  While Canadian importers are finding that Colombia – a country of 44 million – has a dedicated core of entrepreneurs who are keen to do serious business.

“We’ve noticed how the free trade agreement has definitely sparked the interest of Canadians,” notes Alejandro Angel, the company’s Bogotá operations manager.  The agreement, which was signed in November 2008, is expected to help change the perception of Colombia as a place that once carried its share of risk, to a country with an entrepreneurial business class with more than coffee and bananas to sell.

Sustainable farming ethic

Some 380 families work with the Caribbean Exotics team of 64 distribution and professional staff.  Most tropical fruits are grown year-round, providing a livelihood for farmers who mainly work their own land.

In Canada, Montreal is the largest importer of their produce, followed by British Columbia and Alberta.  To encourage Canadians to buy unusual fruits like apple guava, papaya and tamarillo, Caribbean Exotics posts food and drink recipes, nutritional and other useful facts on its website.  We learn, for instance, that granadilla – a round, copper-coloured fruit with a delicate, jelly-like pulp – is an ideal introduction to fruit for very young children.  Not to mention the granadilla’s fat-free and vitamin attributes.

To ensure year-round deliveries, Caribbean Exotics works closely with farmers, providing training in all aspects of the business.  Annual contracts guarantee crop purchases, farmers learn about plant health and rotation to oxygenate the soil, while crops are carefully adjusted to export requirements.  Eventually, the farmers will start their own cooperative to benefit from economies of scale.

Conquering export markets

In the office, sophisticated business systems ensure seamless deliveries of perishable fruit to both Canadian and European distributors.   While time-consuming, the company is rightly proud of its ISO 9001:2000 qualification, Global GAP certification required for exporting to Europe, and the BASC certificate (Business Alliance for Secure Commerce) recognized by US importers.

Angel says Caribbean Exotics owes much of its success in Canada to support and market intelligence received from the Trade Facilitation Office, under a program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development (DFATD).

Caribbean Exotic fruits exhibited at TFO Canada booth -SIAL 2009

After meeting at an agri-trade exhibition in Montreal, “the TFO put an expert in fresh produce at our disposal.  This helped us understand the Canadian market and assemble an export strategy,” says Angel.  “Breaking into new markets requires time and perseverance.  The advice we received was invaluable.”

While this DFATD initiative to help Colombian exporters prepare for free trade with Canada has created a new market for Caribbean Exotics and its hill farmers, much remains to be accomplished.  With up to four weekly shipments, top of Angel’s list would be more Colombia-Canada direct flights.  Air cargo capacity, he explains, is the biggest hurdle to growing the firm’s export business.

For entrepreneurs thinking of entering the Canadian market, Angel explains how selling into Quebec isn’t the same as selling to British Columbia.  “Canada is a large and culturally diverse country, so it was important for us to take the time to understand the precise needs of our clients.”

Having conquered Europe and Canada, Angel and his team are now exploring opportunities in the United States.