São Paulo – Since the coronavirus pandemic started, the demand for vitamin C rich foods has increased. These potential health allies include a little sour fruit grown in Brazil – the Persian lime. “We noticed an uptrend in citrus fruit consumption. I believe that, when people researched information, they sought out ways to improve their health, and this impacted the citrus fruit consumption as a result. The Persian lime is high in vitamin C and good for your health. And there is a plus: it’s low calorie,” said Aline Andrade, director at Andrade Sun Farms, a company that produces the fruit.
The fruit accounts for 98% of Brazilian citrus exports, according to figures from the Center for Advanced Studies on Applied Economics at Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture of the University of São Paulo (CEPEA-ESALQ/USP). Although Brazil is a large orange producer, most of this product goes to the juice industry, which allows the Persian lime to lead the country’s whole citrus exports by far.
Despite the increasing demand for the product in retail, market fluctuations make it hard to pinpoint the real reason for the increase. “We’ve noticed an increase but couldn’t identify when it happed exactly, because there has ben a migration of consumption. In certain weeks, sales increased by 20% to 30% [in retail],” Andrade explained on how the consumption increased in certain periods, then declined.
This migration resulted from the closure of bars and restaurants across the world. The solution was redirecting sales to supermarkets and general retail. According to the Brazilian Association of Fruit and By-Products Producers and Exporters (Abrafrutas), the industry as a whole posted an increase in consumption at home.
The Persian lime is now the country’s third most exported fruit. “Overall, the global demand for citrus fruits has increased. Demand for orange is up, but the Persian lime has been exported regularly. It has therapeutic properties, anti-inflammatory effects. It’s a product for those who believe in preventive medicine because of its therapeutic properties. We need to break a consumption paradigm,” Abrafrutas project manager Jorge Souza pointed out about the still small consumption of the product in the Middle East countries.
This obstacle shows signs of being overcome. According to CEPEA, exports of the fruit set a record-high in 2019. “It’s a growing market. Thinking about São Paulo – Brazil’s largest producer, accounting for 70% of the production – we see a growth scenario of investment in lime plantations in recent years,” CEPEA Citrus researcher Fernanda Geraldini explains.
Having produced the variety for more than three decades, Andrade Sun Farms now exports 70-80% of its own production. The company once had an expressive 25% of its foreign sales focused on the Arab countries, but in recent years its participation in that market declined. “We started with Jordan and then went to the surrounding countries. We had an entire logistics chain established, arriving there in 25 days – superfast, with good shipping rates. Since then, routes have changed, and shipping rates became more expensive. Countries like Vietnam, which are closer, have started producing and exporting. We stopped being competitive. The UAE was a hub, but trade between the countries [in the region] became more complex. Oman started importing it directly, so did Bahrain and others,” said she, who finds it hard to export to these buyers separately.
A pioneer in the large-scale production of the fruit, the family business started exporting it back in the 80s. “Back then, many countries didn’t know about the fruit, it was exotic. We had all the work to break into countries. In Brazil, it was already widely consumed. As exports and demand in the domestic market increased, production have grown year by year,” the executive said. As demand stepped up, the company’s crop has grown from 20 to 650 hectares, and now 100% of its crops are organic. In addition to its own production, Andrade also sells the product grown by small partners in the foreign market.
As wholesale sales dropped by 80%, exports also had to change. “It was quite a drama when some countries had a lockdown. Several containers were already out in the sea, bound to wholesale markets, food services. It was rather complicated to manage that. The lime had to be redirected to industries that were selling,” she explained, pointing out that the EU market opening is still recent and there is no precedent to assess the situation.
To boost sales of citrus from Brazil to the Arabs, Souza explains that the industry is focusing on increasing its sales to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, besides the already-established trade relations with the UAE. “We must work this market better in the next years. We’re preparing the industry for a large B2B in the second half,” he says.
Translated by Guilherme Miranda