While on a study tour to the South African Republic under the EU4Business Initiative, Armenian growers gained expert advice on manufacturing internationally and specifically EU-competitive products: maintaining accurate moisture levels, extending the shelf life of dried fruits, producing attractive yet affordable packaging in line with the European standards, and getting some good marketing tips on how to promote their products.
The practice of drying fruit in Armenia originated more than two millennia ago. Back in the 5th century BC, Greek historian Herodotus mentioned the sun-kissed dried fruit that was transported by Armenian merchants, along with wine and other products. Xenophon of Athens also described the dried fruit that Armenian peasants stored for winter. According to Arkadi Khachikyan, a dried fruit producer in the sunny Armavir region, excavations at the ancient Armenian capital of Yervandashat unearthed a handful of dried fruits on the kitchen floor of King Yervand’s hunting lodge. Even fossilised, the dried fruits couldn't be mistaken for anything else.
While there is no actual information about how dried fruit was produced in ancient Armenia, history shows that it graced the tables of Armenian kings. Centuries later, the production of dried fruit remains a common practice in modern Armenia, largely due to the passion of local growers and the country’s favourable climate. The climate in faraway South Africa is probably not as good for dried fruit production as in Armenia - water shortages, saline soils, and growing areas that are very far from consumer markets. Yet, none of this has stood in the way of the successful production and export of South African dried fruits. The Armenian producers who visited South Africa in March were impressed by the expertise and streamlined work of local producers, which have placed the county in a leading spot in the sector.
During their study tour, the Armenian producers learned first-hand about the entire production process used in the South African Republic: from the cultivation of fruit farms to processing, delivering and selling dried fruit. The study tour was organised as part of the Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade EU4Business initiative. This project is being implemented by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and supported by the European Union under its EU4Business initiative. It helps SMEs produce value-added goods in line with international market standards, linking them with buyers from global value chains and markets, in particular within the EU. Armenian producers had a chance to visit farms, factories and retailers, and to join different business meetings to explore the best international practice in the sector.
“Having the right farm and the right crop is key in dried fruit production,” says Ara Marutyan, founder of the Agrolog Educational Production Centre. “In the South African Republic, this sector is regulated by special laws. For example, producers must use crops specifically meant for dried fruit production. The variety of fruit is provided by an experimental station where new sorts are tested. For years, different sorts get tested for use as dried and canned fruit, as well as other products, until they are proven fit for this kind of cultivation. More than 15 years are needed to cultivate a single fruit sort for dried fruit production. In the South African Republic, the whole crop is brought to the same standard in terms of size, firmness and color.”
To use resources effectively and ensure diversification, the South African Republic produces an array of products from crops that are unfit for dried fruit production, such as fruit bars and dried fruit candies, which are suitable both for domestic consumption and export.
“This tour convinced us even more how important it is to produce dried fruit products in addition to dried fruit itself,” says Ara Khachikyan, head of the Sateni Company. “We’re already brainstorming that idea.”
The success of South African dried fruit producers is also rooted in a solid educational background. To gain their Masters in Food Production degree, candidates must come up with a new food product. Moreover, the degree is awarded only after at least 100 people have tasted the product and provided positive feedback.
There are special associations that serve as a valuable link between the government and producers. They help producers increase their capacity for dried fruit production and contribute to the overall advancement of the sector by providing advice on fruit sorts, competitiveness and exports. These associations also provide government agencies with recommendations on taxation, government support and other issues. Their viability is ensured by their members, who pay $0.21 for each kilogram of dried fruit and $0.10 for each kilogram of fresh fruit sold.
To ensure quality products, dried fruit producers in the South African Republic use simple but effective “tricks.” For instance, the sound of wild birds and gunshots is played through loudspeakers to drive away birds that are tempted to feed on the mesh trays with dried fruit. Another key to success is the efficient use of natural resources. Each farm has its own reservoir to collect rain and snowmelt water for irrigation. Peach kernels are used to spruce up garden paths.
Nairi Margaryan, Production Control and External Relations Officer of Ritea Company, says that South African experience can very well be applied in Armenia. Lida Devejyan, Deputy Director of Arcolad, agrees, adding that cooperation and coordinated work is at the core of success of South African dried fruit producers.
Under the Eastern Partnership: Ready to Trade EU4Business initiative, local producers have participated in leading trade shows in Europe with the goal of establishing new business ties and expanding their export potential. Thanks to the advice of international and local experts, many of the project beneficiaries are on their way to obtaining HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) certification, which is a valuable asset for gaining access to European and US markets.