In the Souss region of southern Morocco, fertile lands in the shadows of the Atlas mountains produce fresh fruit and vegetables that are supplying rapidly expanding numbers of British customers.
According to statistics released by the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs, imports of Moroccan produce for January 2021 grew by 51% compared to January 2020, from 20,236 tons to 30,648, following the UK’s withdrawal from European Union trading arrangements at the beginning of the year.
The increase in demand is spurring British shipping company United Seaways to create a new direct cargo route connecting the UK and Morocco in time for this year’s summer harvests – the first non-stop route linking the two nations from Poole in Dorset to Tanger-Med in northern Morocco. The service will utilise a roll-on, roll-off freight ferry and will bypass EU to UK checks at European borders.
“Of course we know that Brexit might not be so good for the UK, but it’s having an impact even here,” says Nachet Mohamed, managing director at Riad Souss, which exports vegetables and citrus fruits including seedless clementines and lemons to the UK, EU and North America.
“2018 and 2019 weren’t good because production was down, but demand is now up and this has compelled us to work even more, if that were possible, and not just us, but the whole region.”
Australian leading fresh produce company Costa Group holds a majority stake in Moroccan blueberry exporter African Blue, and the firm recently inaugurated a 10,000 square metre facility to keep up with demand, making it the largest berry packing facility serving the UK and European markets.
In the UK, the biggest growth can be observed in the import of Moroccan courgettes, which saw an increase from 95 tons imported in January 2020, to 878 tons imported in January 2021, an increase of 822%. Demand for Moroccan strawberries also saw a striking increase, from 231 tons in January 2020, to 1,292 tons last year, a growth of 459% according to official UK government statistics.
The Moroccan fruit and vegetable market is part of an agricultural industry employing roughly 40% of the kingdom’s workforce. The industry is worth 15-20% of GDP, with sales of over $558m in 2019. The market is expected to experience annual growth of 5.5% over the next five years, according to market research group Morder Intelligence.
The Brexit effect
Since the Brexit referendum, the UK government has been looking to deepen its diplomatic and economic relationships in Morocco, and elsewhere in Africa, in a bid to decrease its reliance on EU member states. According to Nigel Jenny, CEO of FPC, the UK’s fresh produce trade association, Brexit will mean more business for African growers.
“I think this is more than just a flash in the pan, and I think the pandemic has also caused a range of issues in terms of produce availability,” says Jenny. “Businesses are looking at alternative sources as, unfortunately, it’s no longer easy to trade with Europe. There are complications which make Africa and many other third countries just as attractive if not more so than trading with Europe.”
Moroccan fruit and vegetable exports to the UK outmuscled Dutch exports for the first time in January.
As imports from the EU face increasing delays at borders, the cost of food in Britain will likely increase, analysts say. Twenty-six percent of the food consumed in the UK comes from the EU, and just 4% from Africa, and delays on the continent along with added transportation costs will likely be pushed onto the consumer, says Jenny.
“From an industry cost point of view we’re realising that inspections, fees and official charges in terms of the declaration process are adding a considerable amount of time, effort and costs to the supply chain. Sadly, that can only impact on consumer prices at some point in the future. But I think that reinforces the opportunity for Africa, and particularly North Africa, in a way I think that’s not quite fully understood yet.”
The new and direct “Brexit buster” shipping route is expected to help bypass post-Brexit traffic congestion, and additional customs procedures facing goods arriving via Europe. Cargo will ship once a week in both directions and the time of the trip will be slashed in half, from six days by road through the EU to under three by sea.
“The new sea route will allow British businesses to source direct from Morocco and Africa with no intermediaries between countries, so this will permit a smooth and more efficient way to conduct business,” says United Seaways managing director Zeyd Fassi Fehri.
The new route also raises the prospects of increasing UK exports into Morocco and deeper into West Africa, according to Fehri.
“Most exports from the UK tend to go overland which takes longer and means congestion, customs, environmental impact and wear and tear on vehicles. The companies that we have spoken to believe this route will allow them to grow their trade exponentially.
“Many British goods are well priced and can easily compete with Spanish and French products as they are of very high quality. After arrival in Tanger-Med, travelling by road means products could be in Dakar just a few days later.”
New era in UK-Morocco relations
On 1 January, a new era in economic relations between Morocco and the UK began, when a continuity association agreement between the two nations entered into force.
This bilateral agreement maintains all the benefits that the two countries accorded to each other under the Morocco-EU Association Agreement, and now Rabat and London are exploring ways to push economic and trade relations further.
Bilateral trade between Morocco and the UK was valued at £1.6bn ($2.2bn) in the four quarters to the end of Q3 2020, according to the UK’s Department for International Trade, and the association agreement serves as the first step for growth in bilateral cooperation.
British potassium, gas and mineral firms have interests in Morocco, and British mining company Emerson is raising funds to start work at Africa’s biggest potassium mine later this year. Middle Eastern and North African trade ties are important for the success for post-Brexit UK, and from Morocco to Ghana the continent is showing it can quickly meet demand.
“I think it’s a really positive message that in a changing global world post Brexit, there are some fantastic new opportunities,” says Jenny.
“Yes there are challenges, but when there are challenges, good businesses will always find opportunities.”