ALMATY - Monday, January 03, 2011 -
Every fall Russian fruit importers smack their lips over the tasty prices they can get for apples from Kazakhstan.
The Russians know that the apples that are left at the end of the growing season will rot within weeks.
So they offer Kazakhstan growers a fraction of what the fruit is worth. Spoiled apples generate no profit at all, so the growers accept the paltry terms.
The reason this scenario plays out every autumn is that Kazakhstan lacks refrigerated storage facilities that allow growers to sell apples throughout the year.
In an irony for the country where apples are said to have originated, Kazakhstan has to import apples during the winter and early spring to meet demand.
But the country got its first refrigerated storage facility two years ago – so things are starting to change.
The state-of-the-art Kazakh Cool complex, which opened in the spring of 2009 under a regional government program to create a food belt around Almaty, can store up to 2,200 tons of fruit and vegetables.
Additional facilities could stop the practice of the Russians “buying up apples from our orchards for trifling sums,” said Kazakh Cool Deputy Director Vladimir Derevyanko.
State-owned KazAgroFinance loaned Kazakh Cool $1.3 million for the facility’s high-tech drying and cooling equipment. “The government made a significant input into development of our enterprise by extending a seven-year loan at 4 percent interest,” Derevyanko said.
The government created KazAgroFinance to support the agricultural sector through loans and the leasing of machines and equipment.
The first two things a visitor notices when entering the Kazakh Cool facility are the pleasant smell of fruit and how spotless everything is.
It’s quite a contrast with Soviet-era fruit-storage facilities, which were likely to feature heaps of rotting fruit and swarms of fruit flies.
The first thing that Kazakh Cool employees do with newly arrived apples is lower them into a water tank to avoid damaging them.
The floating fruit then bobs its way along a water-filled conveyer to a dryer.
Once the apples are dry, a “computer sorts them by color, weight or ripeness,” Derevyanko said.
The German-made processing equipment can handle about two tons of apples an hour.
The sorted apples are then put in refrigerated storage units, where the air is 21 percent nitrogen and only 1.5 percent oxygen. Breathing this gas mix makes the apples fall asleep, Derevyanko said.
“In storage areas with normal air composition, fruit can be stored only two to three months,” he said. Apples can last nine months in storage areas with 21 percent nitrogen composition, he said.
“By the way, apples must be placed in storage refrigerators within six hours of being pulled from the trees – that is one of the conditions of successful storage,” Derevyanko said.
The cost of storage “varies from 3 to 5 tenge per kilo, depending on the variety of apple,” he said. That’s a range of 2 to 3.5 cents.
The food marketing company Zhetysa began working with Kazakh Cool in 2009 to sell growers’ products to Almaty-area supermarkets and other local food outlets rather than to distributors that pay low prices to ship apples far away.
As the biggest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty is a big market: 3.5 million people.
“The goal of our partner Kazakh Cool is to preserve fruit, while the goal of Zhetysu is to support local producers,” said Adis Seidakhmatov, general director of ZhetysuAgroSauda.
“We are trying to create a centralized marketing system for local agricultural products,” he said. “Today apple producers can conclude contracts through Zhetysu to ensure proper storage and subsequent marketing of their products” at good prices.
Seidakhmatov said Zhetysa arranges for eight varieties of apples to be delivered to wholesale markets and supermarkets in Almaty.
The price that the final seller obtains varies from 100 to 300 tenge per kilo, depending on quality, he said. That’s between 68 cents and $2.
At first it wasn’t easy to convince growers “that it is more profitable for them to sell their products in the local market rather than hand them over” to distributors who buy them in bulk, Seidakhmatov said.
But many growers now realize that paying storage fees gives them a shot at a much higher return on their product.
As their demand for refrigerated storage grows, more units are likely to pop up in Kazakhstan’s southern apple heartland and biggest food market, industry insiders say.