Serbian Apple Producers Expand Fair Trade with the World
Taking a bite out of EU markets
Serbia is among the largest apple producers in Southeast Europe. For over a decade, more than 90 percent of the country’s apples were sold to Russia, owing in part to Serbia’s free trade agreement with Russia.
“It was easiest for our producers to export to Russia because of the low requirements and lack of other solutions,” said Andrej Stanarević, chief operating officer at the agribusiness Pollino Agrar. “But trade with Russia goes hand in hand with problems of a different nature. Buyers make irregular payments and retailers trade unprofessionally. All of us exporters have experienced that retailers order large quantities of apples, that they tell us they don’t need after the apples have arrived in Russia. We’d then have to go through the painstaking process of finding wholesale markets that would buy them.”
“I could go on for days about the bad experiences, I am certain, all exporters doing trade with Russia have had the same. Things that are unthinkable in some countries — are happening in Russia. We realized that we don’t have good prospects with Russia and in recent years, with the help of USAID, we began looking for other solutions and better export markets,” added Andrej.
In 2018, USAID gathered a dozen of the largest Serbian apple producers under the umbrella of the countries’ first Apple Association, Serbia Does Apples, to help drive healthy competition, joint promotion, and collaboration. The group quickly identified the United Kingdom (UK) and Romania as the most viable markets for Serbian apples.
“The UK was a good fit…[due to] the higher selling price of apples and the fact that they were interested in smaller size apples neither local retailers or Russia would buy. And Romania because they wanted apples other markets weren’t interested in,” said Julka Toškić, the association manager.
“During the summer last year, we visited Romanian retailers and traders, with the help of USAID,” said Andrej Stanarević. “Since we’ve exported 1,000 tons of apples, that means that 40 percent of our production goes to Romania. In recent months I’ve also been negotiating our first shipment of apples to the UK with Total Produce,” noted Stanarevic. Total Produce is one of the largest distributors of fresh fruit globally.
“Our collaboration with these new, more serious buyers, that we’ve met through the association, is far more stress-free and professional. While the standards and demands are higher, the rules of the game are known and respected by everyone,” added Andrej.
Collaboration Opens Up a World of Opportunity
Atos Fructum produces some of the best quality apples Serbia has to offer, largely due to the favorable microclimate of the Fruška Gora mountains where its orchards are located. In 2018, Atos Fructum joined the association and, with the help of USAID, attended two fairs in the UK.
“The benefits were numerous. We’ve learned what the UK market demands of its suppliers and we were given contacts of serious companies, wholesalers, and retailers. The association pushed that door open for us and we’ve later continued communicating and exploring,” said Dragoslav Bovan, commercial director at Atos.
That experience led to the first merger of Atos Fructum and PIK Južni Banat in August 2019, creating the Cooperative of Pannonian Apples (COPA).
“We realized we no longer wanted to depend on the Russian market alone, and that this was a crucial step for us to take, in order to take a leap forward into other markets than just the UK,” said Bovan from Atos. “We needed to have all three elements, what we call ‘the holy trinity’: quantity, quality, and price stability — or we’d have stayed in the so-called ‘second league of the West’ and unable to compete with other serious exporters. We now produce 40,000 tons and are in the process of recrafting, replanting, and expanding our orchards to reach our joint goal of 150,000 tons annually. With five, 10 or 12,000 tons of apples, individual Serbian producers don’t stand a chance of being serious players on world markets, when cooperatives in Italy or France, that consist of hundreds of members, produce 400,000 to 500,000 tons per season.”
Prior to 2018, Atos Fructum exported 84 percent of their production to Russia. During last year’s season, the newly established COPA exported 23 percent of its apples to the UK, 20 percent to the Middle and Far East, and the first containers of Serbian apples reached Southeast Asia and even Africa. In mid-November 2020, COPA made the first shipment of apples from Serbia to India, a milestone for both countries.
Since USAID initiated its partnership with Serbia’s apple industry in 2018, the nation’s export markets have shifted considerably, reflecting an array of new and expanded global trade opportunities.
Serbia joined the World Apple and Pear Association (WAPA), and next year is scheduled to host WAPA’s annual conference, which gathers a ‘who’s who’ of the global apple industry — another opportunity for Serbian apples to build a global following.
About the Author
Mirjana Vukša Zavišić is the development outreach and communications specialist for USAID’s Serbia mission. Follow her work at @USAIDSerbia