Colombian tilapia reaches new markets

Colombian tilapia reaches new markets Cages containing tilapia in Betania, a region traditionally known for its coffee, sugarcane, cacao. Photo: Diego Niño

With government support in place and and the consolidation of a net of small and medium-sized companies, tilapia production in Colombia has been rising consistently in the past few years, reports Eduardo Campos Lima.

Some of Columbia’s larger companies already competing in international markets. As a whole, Columbia’s aquaculture rose from 104,300 tonnes in 2016 to 120,200 tonnes in 2017, with a sustainable growth rate that can be noticed over the past years, according to Diego Niño of the National Authority of Aquaculture and Fishing in Colombia. In 2018, total production totalled around 130 thousand tonnes – and tilapia accounts for approximately 62% of the total.

“The growth in tilapia production will continue in the future. There was a transformation in the mindset of the producers in the last two decades. People now see their farms as professional businesses, and they are concerned with such themes as raising productivity and investing more money on production,” Diego Niño explained.

Initially, aquaculture in Colombia was an alternative for farmers who nervous about having large cattle herds on their properties. Given that both paramilitary and rebellious armed groups historically disputed several regions in the country since the 1940s, fish tanks were a less visible way of investing money and therefore they minimised the risk of being robbed, Diego Niño believes.

“In regions such Huila, closer to the capital Bogota, this kind of business grew more and more over time and entrepreneurs started to see it as a viable trade. Nowadays, Huila is the most important producing hub in the country, along with other regions in the eastern and northern parts of Colombia,” he said.

Domestic consumption of fish has also been growing steadily over the last three decades, going from an annual consumption rate of 1.7kg per capita to 8.4kg per capita.

“Colombian average consumption of fish is still below the average of other Latin American countries. But we can definitely see the results of the actions taken by the government and the companies in this sector to improve the quality of products and to promote their consumption,” he added.

Small producers still depend too much on big exporters and are affected by fluctuations in international trade, which can sometimes have significant impact on the domestic market. These are the reasons why the government is currently working on plans to improve their access to the national domestic market. One of the ongoing measures is a programme to put them in direct contact with costumers, such as restaurants and grocery stores.

“The government is also helping them to invest in certified processing plants, as a way of raising the value on their side of the chain,” Diego Niño said.

Colombian tilapia exports are following the overall increase in production. In 2016, the country exported tilapia worth US$34.4 million. In 2018, the export revenue jumped to US$ 54.5 million. One of the companies leading this trend is Comepez, part of a family-owned cluster of companies which also includes Proceal, Tilapez and Exporpez.

According to Andres Macias Rubio, head of Tilapez operations in Spain, the group started exporting 15 years ago, initially selling fresh tilapia to the United States.

“The United States and Canada continue to be our biggest international buyers. But now we are also present in the English and Spanish markets,” he said.

The pioneering cluster has a strong presence on the Columbian domestic market, but exports are the main business. Roughly 65% of total production is sold abroad. One of the turning points for Comepez’s international expansion was the 4-star certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), that the company obtained in 2011.

“Our fish has no antibiotics, no hormones and no water, a quality standard that assures our presence in the international markets.”

Thanks to Comepez and other big players of aquaculture in the department of Huila, tilapia is more important to the region now than coffee, the historic major export from Colombia.

“Luckily the government understood the importance that tilapia and trout acquired in the country, helping companies like ours to open new markets abroad,” said Andres Macias Rubio.

On the European market, Comepez is now the Colombian aquaculture’s spearhead. Besides the markets it already covers, the company has plans to expand to Belgium, France and Germany in the future. Contacts have also already beeen established with Asian markets. Through their partnership with Costco in Great Britain, its tilapia has arrived​ on the shelves of Iceland’s supermarkets.

Comepez’s – and Colombian tilapia, in general – biggest competitors are companies from Brazil, Honduras – such as Regal Springs – and the Norwegian salmon exporters. But Andres Macias Rudio is betting on the quality of Comepez products to keep the company growing.

“We have a terrific climate and can produce the whole year with great quality. And we’re lucky to have in Colombia a good availability of air freight companies that deliver our products, and key partners that work with us locally. So, we’re continuously trying to improve our standard and evolve with the market.”

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