Like the old cliche about selling ice to Eskimos, New Zealand kiwifruit marketer Zespri is in the early stages of growing kiwifruit in China, the fruit's native home.

Originally labelled "Chinese gooseberry" before being renamed "kiwifruit" by New Zealand exporters, the fruit that originated in north-central and eastern China is now this country's largest fresh fruit export earner.

Zespri, New Zealand's single-desk kiwifruit export marketing body, expects retail sales of the fruit to rise to around $2.3 billion in 2016-17, from $1.9b last year. The local industry is on a "significant growth path", aiming for $4.5b in revenue by 2025, from just $1.5b a few years back when it was devastated by the vine disease PSA, Zespri general manager of grower and external relations, David Courtney, told a recent conference on Chinese agriculture at Victoria University.

Kiwifruit may be big business to New Zealand, but it's just a small furry blob in the $990b global fresh produce market. To keep its shelf space, Zespri has gone global, securing season-round supply from Northern Hemisphere producers, which it markets under the Zespri brand.


That makes Zespri the world's biggest kiwifruit buyer, with most of its fruit sourced from Italy, followed by France, and a small amount grown in Korea and Japan for their local markets. Zespri fruit grown overseas ensures supply for the four months when New Zealand fruit isn't available.

To drive sales further and protect its market share in Asia's largest economy, Zespri is starting to invest in kiwifruit production in China, the world's largest grower of the fruit, with more than 50 varieties.

It currently supplies China from New Zealand in the southern hemisphere season, and from Italy in the off-season. However, there are several challenges to the current arrangement, with shipments from Italy taking five to six weeks and costing more than locally grown fruit.

While China has about 100,000ha of land planted in kiwifruit vines compared with New Zealand's 12,000ha, it's still a relatively small consumer domestically, although that is starting to change.

This year, China became Zespri's largest retail market, surpassing Japan for the first time since the marketing body was set up in 1997, although the Japanese market continues to offer far more attractive margins.

"There's no doubt that it [China] will be our largest market going forward," Courtney says.
Zespri is betting China will become the world's largest consumer of kiwifruit, and possibly also the largest exporter. That changing dynamic has prompted it to rethink how it supplies the country.

Its current investment in China is expected to raise the quality of local fruit and could threaten Zespri's existing arrangements, he says.

There's no doubt that [China] will be our largest market going forward

"If our price curve out of Italy is higher than if you do it in China for the same quality, then we are in trouble in terms of maintaining that shelf space outside of our season," he says.


"We need to be on the shelf because if we are not on the shelf 12 months of the year, it's really hard to get back on there when the New Zealand fruit starts coming into the market."

To cement its position, Zespri is looking to develop long-term Chinese partnerships and tap into the country's germplasm resources, which are the largest in the world and a likely source of future innovation.

"We know that the development is happening quickly, and so we want to be there," Courtney says. "It's really important that Zespri is in there alongside, seeing what's happening, and looking to build its knowledge and its partnerships in the value chain."

This year, for the first time, Zespri will source fruit from orchards in Shaanxi Province, the "fruit bowl" of China, which it expects will produce about 6000 trays of green kiwifruit. The varieties are globally grown but differ from the traditional Hayward common to New Zealand, and are popular with Chinese consumers for their sweetness.

Graphic / NZ Herald
Graphic / NZ Herald

Zespri doesn't own the land, the orchard, the supply chain or the post-harvest operator in China, but will work alongside the grower to harvest the fruit and follow it through to market to understand the process and how the Chinese-grown Zespri fruit is received by local consumers.

"The aim is to scale up over time," Courtney says. "At the end of the three-year process, if it works and looks promising, then we will move to a commercialisation phase and then over the 10-year horizon our aim is to source our entire northern hemisphere off-season supply in China out of China.

"That's our long-term plan. We are deliberately doing small steps along the way because we know that we have to get this right, we have to find the right partners, and ensure that we can meet our brand promises as we go."

Zespri has partnered with the Shaanxi provincial government and is establishing a centre of excellence to build relationships to share its intellectual property over time.

"It's a slow journey, a 10-year journey that we have our eye on, but it's a great opportunity and when you consider our competitive environment, and our strategy, one that we can't ignore and one that we need to be onto," Courtney says.

"If we get confidence in the process and our partners sooner than that, then we will go faster."

The plan is not without risks. If the fruit isn't up to standard, it could have an impact on the wider Zespri brand and hurt New Zealand growers.

We are deliberately doing small steps along the way because we know that we have to get this right, we have to find the right partners, and ensure that we can meet our brand promises as we go.

Zespri has invested well over $1b in building its brand globally since it was set up almost 20 years ago, enabling it to secure premium prices.

"When you invest that much money in a brand, you make a lot of promises along the way, and you can burn that capital that you have made very quickly if you make poor choices around quality and safety, so that's a key area that we are focused on," Courtney says.

Growers back in New Zealand "are really holding our feet to the fire, saying 'what are you going to do to our brand, because we own it and we are very passionate about it and don't you dare stuff this up'," he says. "We are constantly reminded about that, which is a good thing - it's a good thing that growers are so passionate about their product and their brand."

The marketer already faces Zespri brand counterfeiting in China, similar to other premium brands like Rolex and Louis Vuitton, which sees non-Zespri fruit carrying its fan logo, or intentional mis-spellings such as Zaspri or Espri.

"We do quite a bit of work on that, and our focus on that only has to get sharper the more we invest in China and the more fruit we put in there, because clearly a poor experience for someone under our brand - even if it's not our fruit - impacts on us ultimately. We are looking at that quite deeply but it's hard." Courtney says Zespri is taking a deliberate, conservative approach to its Chinese expansion.

"If we never get confidence that we can deliver a product to our standard out of China, then I imagine we wouldn't do it."