Avocados are to the Chileans what spuds are to the Brits. Thick, gloopy mashed avocado is served with everything from ham sandwiches to a McDonald’s meal. Indeed, hot dogs smeared with avocado are one of the most popular orders at the fast food retailer and something of a national dish.
Such is the demand for the superfood that visit any outlet of the two leading grocery retailers, Jumbo and Lider, and you’ll be confronted by half an aisle or more of the fruit, mostly of the Hass variety.
And now Chilean producers, working under the banner of the Comite de Paltas, Chile, or the Chilean Hass Avocado Association, are hoping to instil a similar enthusiasm for the fruit in UK consumers.
This autumn, the association launched its first promotional campaign in the UK to drive consumption. Some 1.89 million in-pack recipe and information booklets have been distributed in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Somerfield.
The campaign has also involved trolley posters in Sainsbury urging consumers to ‘try one today’ - the similarity with Sainsbury’s new slogan is coincidental - as well as in-store TV at Tesco, tastings in Waitrose and a consumer PR campaign.
Nobody is kidding themselves, however, that it is going to be an easy to task to persuade UK consumers of the fruit’s merits. Shopper research, commissioned by the association, reveals that more than 75% of the UK population has not bought an avocado in the past year. Only one in four people has tried an avocado. Average avocado consumption is estimated at just 150g a year in the UK.
The research also shows that UK consumers do not understand the health benefits of avocados; they believe avocados to be high in cholesterol, when they contain none, and an average serving provides just 138 calories.
However, there are signs that people are catching on. The avocado category is one of the fastest growing in the fresh produce sector, with volume growing more than 20% on last year. Producers expect to more than double the volume of avocado exports to the UK this year to 5,800 tonnes.
While still a drop in the ocean of the 175,000 tonnes of Hass avocados produced this year in Chile, it is early days for Chilean producers targeting the UK market, especially as Chile only started exporting to Europe three years ago.
As Adolfo Ochagavía, the association’s general manager, points out: “This is our first promotional campaign in the UK and one that we hope to run in subsequent years. There is a huge opportunity to drive consumption of avocados here, with penetration at only 23.4%.”
But why are producers interested in supplying the UK market in the first place? It’s not as if the logistics of transporting them halfway across the world are straightforward. And the price they command can be 50% less than in the US, the main export market for most Chilean avocado growers.
Arturo Gubler, the manager of Desarollo Agrario, which grows avocados on the hillsides of the Aconcagua Valley, says the main reason he is targeting the UK market is to diversify the company’s supply base. At present, 90% of what it exports goes to the US. The UK receives no more than 3%.
“We are interested in the UK because it is such a small market for us,” he says. “We don’t want to be so dependent on the US.”
Desarollo Agrario supplies Sainsbury, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, among others, and Gubler would ultimately like to see 50% of its exports going to the UK and Europe.
He claims that the Chilean avocado has a natural advantage over its cousins from New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa in that Chile’s climate is relatively dry so the fruit is less prone to disease and rot once it hits UK shelves - typically three weeks to a month after it has been harvested.
“The other factor that is important is that we are in the southern hemisphere, so can supply out of season to the northern hemisphere countries,” he adds.
This year picking in the north and Aconcagua Valley started in June and will finish in January, but efforts are afoot to extend the season, says Raimundo Lira, head of export sales at Propal, Chile’s second biggest avocado exporter.
This season Propal started exporting to the UK five weeks earlier than last year and it plans to continue until the second week of January, extending the season by a total of eight weeks. It is also considering a trial to supply the UK as late as May.
Lira is in no doubt as to the size of the opportunity. “With this rate of growth, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in the next 10 days, let alone 10 years,” he says.