Export potential for East African avocados and fresh produce to Europe, Middle East


In 2020, Agris, Maris' agriculture and forestry division, founded Evergreen Herbs Ltd which specialises in exporting fresh herbs like chives, basil, and mint to global markets, utilizing over 50 hectares of production split between two farms located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

In 2020, Agris, Maris’ agriculture and forestry division, founded Evergreen Herbs Ltd which specialises in exporting fresh herbs like chives, basil, and mint to global markets, utilising over 50 hectares of production split between two farms located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

Maris Africa is an investment holding company with a diversified portfolio across five sectors in 12 African countries. Jeanette Clark speaks with Charlie Tryon, CEO and co-founder of Maris, about opportunities in the continent’s agriculture and forestry sectors.

What opportunities and trends do you currently see in the agricultural sector?

There is a big move towards increased food security at the moment, largely as a result of increasingly erratic food production driven by climate change, Covid, the war in Ukraine and tightening labour markets.

We see major agri-tech advances in monitoring and data capture coming through which will drive efficiency and assist with higher production using fewer resources. I think the momentum is partly driven by the impact of the pandemic, however the war in Ukraine has driven energy prices and the cost of inputs much higher resulting in shortages in global supply chains. As a result, we see major disruptions across the food production industry, particularly in places like the Netherlands where food is produced in greenhouses using natural gas for heating.

I see a real opportunity for East Africa to take over some of this lost production by the Netherlands, for example. We are quite bullish on the sector as a whole.

Which areas are Maris focusing on to capture this potential market?

We are big believers in taking the risk out of agriculture. Producers are constantly at the mercy of the elements: rainfall, temperature, diseases and pests, and logistical challenges. Then you also have unexpected challenges like the collapse of the euro against the US dollar last year, and the war in Ukraine causing shortages and inflationary price spikes in inputs.

There is always something to challenge you.

We see a real opportunity in specialised controlled intensive agriculture. To me, this is the future of agriculture – where you have production in a very high-tech and controlled environment, preferably a greenhouse. It addresses inefficiencies in water, labour and soil: minimising your footprint on the environment while maximising your production. You want to get the most out of every square metre.

It can be done. In the Netherlands, some farms have produced up to 1,000 tonnes of tomatoes per hectare in these very intensive food production units. This is a staggering number if you think back to before the green revolution when one tonne of food per hectare would have been considered a good crop.

At Maris, we focus on areas where we can control the weather and the water, and deliver on our environmental and sustainable criteria and ideally support local farmers around us by sharing resources and ideas and even access to market.

In terms of crop choice, we see opportunities in East Africa to deliver crops such as avocados, fresh herbs and a range of vegetables, largely for export into Europe and the Middle East.

(Agris, the agriculture and forestry division of Maris, recently announced that it is developing a 420-hectare avocado plantation at Agris’ flagship Ndabibi farm in Naivasha, Kenya, with Granot, an avocado producer from Israel, and specialist investor AgDevCo.)

Charlie Tryon, CEO of Maris Africa

What about customer sentiment against imported fresh produce in favour of locally grown?

Yes, there is a customer sentiment change against food production that involves airfreight. For example, some supermarkets in the Netherlands are increasingly boycotting airfreighted produce.

I sympathise with why they are doing it, but the logic doesn’t always stack up. A lot of food grown locally in the European Union come from heated glass houses that use gas. The carbon footprint of tomatoes grown in these glass houses in the UK is, in my opinion, far greater than if you were to airfreight them from Kenya as part of the available space on a passenger plane.

Our critical social impact, working with vulnerable people and providing economic options, can also be overlooked if you only focus on the airfreight element.

Consumers need to be better educated so that airfreighted food is not pigeonholed unfairly and the real carbon footprint of food is clearly displayed. Few people know that rice has a carbon footprint comparable with some meat production.

Maris also has investments in Africa’s forestry sector. What are your thoughts about opportunities in this sector?

If you listen to the investment chatter around carbon capture and forestry projects, it seems as if there is a lot of opportunity, but the truth is that we are not seeing the words convert into action on the ground. Unfortunately, a lot of money is going into paying consultants to come up with strategies, without investor actions to back them up. Some of those strategies do not take the complexity of forestry projects into account.

Another reason for the lack of action could be the reluctance of investors to enter into fragile states where forestry projects could be viable. For example, we have been working in South Sudan for 13 years, but see very little interest from development finance institutions to channel money into the country. I think it is important that investors should realise that they need to step out of their comfort zone to achieve the impact they want. Your money can go further if you invest in hard-to-reach places, rather than say financing a large cement company or large well-established bank.

In our opinion, there is a limited window for new forestry plantation projects that could meet some of the carbon targets out there, due to the rate of population growth and the strain this is placing on available, fertile land. We see fewer and fewer available pieces of land that can be sustainably developed into large-scale forestry for carbon capture programmes.

Resettlement and land issues will only become more difficult going forward. In 10 years, it will be nearly impossible to find 5,000 to 10,000 hectares of uncontested land that is suitable for sustainable commercial forestry.

The complexity of carbon projects and their narrow criteria also limit the opportunities. Most of them are not suited to areas that have been badly deforested like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or even northern Uganda. We have even found that the carbon consultants who need to verify projects are unwilling to travel to these areas.

Maris Africa CEO Charlie Tryon’s contact information

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