Trade Talk

June 07, 2022

Looking at the way bean consumption is going in Colombia, it’s very likely that production will go up: “Looking at the way bean consumption is going in Colombia, it’s very likely that production will go up.” Benjamin Perez looks to the future.

Luke Wilkinson


At a glance

Talk to me about Gran Colmado, how did it get started?

The company was set up by my sister-in-law around the year 2000, when it sold basic household commodities like Panela, which is a sugarcane derivative that is used on a massive scale in Colombia. They also started out with regular sugar and corn. 
Then around 2004 they started to begin the first imports. Why? Well, Colombia is a country with lots of different climates and we don't have seasons the way the rest of the world does because of our proximity to the equator. We have Bogotá, where the only changes are that sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn't, but the temperatures never change. Some places closer to the sea have heat all year round, others have heat and humidity, others are mountainous with lots of water. As a result, the crops we have are uniform and predictable.
When the harvest in the north finishes around June, a couple of months later in August/September, the next crop is harvested. The same thing is more or less true of crops in the west and east. What this means is that we were left with gaps in the year, which at the time we decided we would use to grow wheat, importing the other things we might have planted from some of our closer neighbors like Bolivia and Argentina. Over time as we grew we incorporated imports from some other countries like the US and Canada.

What’s your day-to-day job for the company?

I’m in charge of organizing buying from outside of Colombia, which means I'll keep an eye on the harvest in each country and make sure I’m aware of the trade deals that we have with each one in terms of imports, then I organize the logistics. I also do a lot of negotiation, looking at the prices of beans, in the US or Canada or Argentina for example, then I weigh up which varieties we might need from each place.


What products does Gran Colmado import?

The company is basically divided up into three divisions: number one are pulses - beans, lentils, and so on. Then there is the second division, which is for seeds and other healthy products like chia seeds and amaranth seeds. Finally we have fruit and nuts, like grapes, almonds, walnuts and cranberries.


Beans and lentils have very high rates of consumption in Colombia, but you are net importers of both. Where do they tend to come from?

The lack of seasons in the Colombian climate prevents us from growing certain types of products such as lentils, chickpeas, and corn, to give you a few examples. These products have to be imported. Another curiosity that we have in the Columbian market is that we produce a lot of different types of beans, some of which can only be produced in Colombia and attempts to develop this crop abroad in countries like the US, have failed up until now. The ones we can't grow, or can’t grow enough of, such as light and small red kidney beans, black beans and lentils, have to come from abroad.

Why is pulse consumption so high in Columbia? Is there room for it to go up even more?

We have really high consumption of chickpeas, lentils and beans for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because they are an economic source of protein and have become a part of Colombian food culture. Pulse consumption has been part of the makeup of the country. Take the area of Antioquia, in the center west - people there eat pulses every single day. Perhaps it comes from the country having had moments of poverty in the past, where money was scarce and pulses were very cheap protein. People would alternate between lentils and beans depending on which one was at a higher price.
As to your second question, consumption is definitely going to go up. I'll tell you why: at a global level there’s a huge wave of healthy food products on the rise, and Colombia is no different to any other country in that respect. Eating habits have changed a lot, and people are trying to be more and more health conscious and to eat more natural products. We’ve seen this in seed and nut consumption, but in a pulses it’s been even bigger as they are already a product of mass consumption. Every day we're seeing new foods: hamburgers made with lentils, beans and even chickpeas. On the Atlantic coast where there is a bigger Arabic population, people are eating a lot of hummus.
Another important phenomenon of recent years has been the migration of Venezuelans to Columbia, because Venezuelans eat a huge amount of black beans, which has led to a huge spike in consumption.


Do you have an idea of how much black bean consumption has risen as a result of Venezuelan migration?

Perhaps around triple what it was before. We as a company used to bring around 100 tonnes of black beans into the country every year, but right now we bring around 250/300 tons.


What are some of the other reliable import markets for Gran Colmado?

Since the beginning, Bolivia and Argentina have been stable providers for us, but recently things have looked more towards America and Canada. We've got lentils coming in huge quantities at around 150,000 tons a year. Around 50 to 60% of our lentils come from Canada, and the rest comes from America. When we need to bolster the local production of black beans, all of that comes from America. Nowadays we don't bring as much from Argentina. Of all our chickpea imports, around 30% still come from Argentina, while the other 70% come from the US or Canada.

Could you see Columbia becoming a more self-sufficient country in terms of pulses?

In terms of beans, looking at the way consumption trends are going, it's very likely that production is going to go up, whereas with chickpea and corn, self-sufficiency will never be a realistic possibility because climatic conditions don't allow for them to grow. Overall though, with the land and climate that we have, we could have much more self-sufficiency.


What’s preventing that from happening at the moment?

It's not something I know a lot about but I think there have been political considerations that didn't allow for the development of the countryside. From now on I expect it will be developed more and more, because we have the land, the climate and the water. We've got everything we need.


As a result of the invasion of Ukraine, we are currently seeing significant price rises in raw materials and energy. What repercussions are you seeing in the Columbian pulse industry and how are you adapting?

We’re feeling the rise in the costs of farming inputs like urea, which is produced in large quantities in Russia and Ukraine. On top of that, there is near constant inflation, for quite a few different reasons: firstly, Ukraine is missing its seeding seasons, which means there will be less food in the world. This pushes their usual buyers, many of which are in Asia, over to other different markets that we buy from, like America, Canada and Argentina. Obviously this demand creates inflation.
How are we defending ourselves against that? We are doing everything we can from a logistical perspective, negotiating and buying in advance, negotiating for new harvests in 2022 that will come in October/November, in order to get things fixed before we see further rises in prices. When imports become expensive, we rely on variety; we’ll perhaps be able to replace lentil imports for beans, or look for more local bean harvests to try to keep prices low as Colombia isn't a rich country. 


If the war continues over the next year and the inflation accompanies it, what changes would you expect to have to make?

We would have to diversify our portfolio, always keeping in mind that we need to keep competitive prices. Perhaps looking to Bolivia or Argentina if the prices are good. Sometimes you can get good prices from large harvests coming from the United States and Canada, if you negotiate sales of real volume. We would do everything we could to minimize the impact of the price rises and inflation.


If fertilizer from Russia becomes more difficult to access, whether for a breakdown in distribution from Russia or because the prices became prohibitive, are there other alternative sources?

Yes, there are a few. Venezuela has a certain amount of fertilizer, and Mexico also produces some. The only reason we don't buy from them now is because Ukraine and Russia have always been cheaper but, when we see scarcity like we're seeing at the moment, then the sources closer to home become a more realistic option.


Lastly, could you give us a picture of how the future looks for Gran Colmado?

All being well, it's a very promising future. Above all we provide a food product that is always going to be necessary and the food we work with is for mass consumption, which is constantly growing. Ten years ago Colombians would never have eaten things like Chia seeds, which are a real growing market for us but it shows that habits are changing and pulses will grow with that.