TRADE TALK

Interviews with members of our industry

Mung Beans from Venezuela: An Interview with Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez and Vanessa Tejero Leon


Skane Group B.V. is a trading company set up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

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Mung Beans from Venezuela: An Interview with Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez and Vanessa Tejero Leon

How a previously overlooked bean prompted a major Venezuelan importer to become an export pioneer.

Six years ago, Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez was overseeing his sesame seed operations in the municipality of Turen in his native Venezuela when a partner of his from Italy approached.

“He had just gotten back from a fair in China,” Ramón relates, “and he showed me this photo of a bean and asked me if I thought we had an opportunity to do something with it. I forwarded it to Vanessa and Alejandra and asked them to look into it.”

Vanessa Tejero Leon is the general manager of Skane Group B.V., a trading company Ramón set up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Alejandra Alvarado, his sister, is the executive director of sales. 

“We just happened to be at one of the major trade fairs at the time,” recalls Vanessa. “We asked around and learned that it was green mung bean and that it is widely consumed in Southeast Asia.”

In Venezuela green mung beans are known as ‘frijol chino’ and were previously only grown as a cover crop or as feed for pigs.

Ramón and his team decided to take a chance. They acquired ‘frijol chino’ on the cheap from surprised growers and found a buyer in Mersin, Turkey. That is how, in 2015, Skane Group came to export the first containers of Venezuelan mung beans. Since then, others have followed, and Venezuela’s mung bean production has boomed from 140 MT in 2015 to 60,000 MT in 2020.

“At Skane Group, we have seen exponential growth because of our competitive price and the quality of our beans,” says Vanessa. “Our clients tell us that they can store our beans for a long time and they maintain their color.”

Intrigued by the emergence of a new mung bean origin, GPC reached out to Ramón and Vanessa and spoke with them about the challenges they faced as they pioneered Venezuela’s mung bean industry.

Mung Beans from Venezuela: An Interview with Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez and Vanessa Tejero Leon

Vanessa Tejero Leon, general manager, Skane Group B.V. / Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez, president of Skane Group, Agroinsa and Raw Grain.

Six years ago, Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez was overseeing his sesame seed operations in the municipality of Turen in his native Venezuela when a partner of his from Italy approached.

“He had just gotten back from a fair in China,” Ramón relates, “and he showed me this photo of a bean and asked me if I thought we had an opportunity to do something with it. I forwarded it to Vanessa and Alejandra and asked them to look into it.”

Vanessa Tejero Leon is the general manager of Skane Group B.V., a trading company Ramón set up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Alejandro Alvarado, his sister, is the executive director of sales. 

“We just happened to be at one of the major trade fairs at the time,” recalls Vanessa. “We asked around and learned that it was green mung bean and that it is widely consumed in Southeast Asia.”

In Venezuela green mung beans are known as ‘frijol chino’ and were previously only grown as a cover crop or as feed for pigs.

Ramón and his team decided to take a chance. They acquired ‘frijol chino’ on the cheap from surprised growers and found a buyer in Mersin, Turkey. That is how, in 2015, Skane Group came to export the first containers of Venezuelan mung beans. Since then, others have followed, and Venezuela’s mung bean production has boomed from 140 MT in 2015 to 60,000 MT in 2020.

“At Skane Group, we have seen exponential growth because of our competitive price and the quality of our beans,” says Vanessa. “Our clients tell us that they can store our beans for a long time and they maintain their color.”

Intrigued by the emergence of a new mung bean origin, GPC reached out to Ramón and Vanessa and spoke with them about the challenges they faced as they pioneered Venezuela’s mung bean industry.

 

GPC: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in the pulse trade?

Vanessa: I actually come from a very different background. I have a doctorate in osteopathy and worked as a physical therapist. Then about seven years ago, Ramón, whose family I am very close with, invited me to be part of his trade project. I thought it was a wonderful project, an opportunity to create jobs in Venezuela, and he placed his confidence in me, and so I accepted and moved to Rotterdam with his sister, Alejandra, and the three of us began to build what would eventually become Skane Group.

Little by little, we started to see good growth and that enabled us to add more people to the team. Fortunately, we have Erasmus University nearby. Its one of the top business universities in the world, and we’ve been able to recruit a solid sales team from there. 

Ramón: I have been involved with agricultural commodities since I was 17 years of age. My father was a peanut importer and an exporter of cacao. I began working with him on peanuts and after about three years he left the peanut side of the business entirely to me. One of the first things I did was form a partnership with the competition and together we were importing 3,500 MT of peanuts per year. We were also importing other nuts, like pistachios and almonds, as well as raisins. We saw good profits and we were constantly reinvesting in growing the business.

Then in 2001, I started working in Argentina. I went there to do business on peanuts and ended up working with beans. It just so happened that a company there that supplied me with popcorn had these black bean inventories that they didn’t know what to do with. The price had crashed because of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis. In Venezuela, we consume a lot of black beans, so I teamed up with them and started importing Argentine black beans into Venezuela. But that came to an end when the government of Venezuela started imposing restrictions on imports. When that happened, I decided to stay in Argentina with my partner and exported black beans to Brazil. Business was good and I started to diversify. I entered into a partnership with a U.S. company and we bought plants in China and Argentina. We also started working in Spain, and I learned a whole lot about the quality of alubia beans.

Then 13 years ago, I decided to do business in Venezuela again. We bought land, physically moved the plant from China to Turen, and started working with black beans. But we came to realize that other bean types had more markets to offer. So we started to diversify into other bean classes that had value added niche markets.

As our offerings became more diversified, we started forming alliances with other companies, and we really owe our success to the hard work of the group. We have production operations in Argentina and Venezuela, and a trading office in Holland. We now also have a presence in Panama, where we distribute into Central America. In seven years, we have established ourselves as Central America’s top lentil distributor and the second leading light red kidney bean distributor.

 

GPC: And you own the farmland in Venezuela, right?

Ramón: Yes. If we look at the history of peanut production in Venezuela, back in the ’70s and ’80s, the country used to produce some 60,000 MT of peanuts for peanut oil. But then Venezuela’s currency strengthened, and suddenly it was cheaper to import, and so the ag sector collapsed.

Today, we own the entire supply chain. We do not rely on a foreign provider. We have 10,000 hectares that we farm in Venezuela and we handle everything from the seed to the export of the crop.  

 

GPC: You mentioned that you used to import black beans into Venezuela. Could you give us a sense of the volume of country’s bean imports today?

Vanessa: Today most of the imports are handled by the government. Unofficial estimates peg imports at between 80-100,000 MT, with black beans comprising 80% of that amount. Venezuela’s primary black bean suppliers are Argentina and China. Argentina is the bigger of the two because its prices are lower. 

There is domestic production, of course, but I think imports will continue to be high. Black beans are consumed almost daily in Venezuela.

I think imports are up this year because Venezuela is in a severe recession and is importing more to cover basic consumption. Venezuelans consume black beans more than any other grain.

 

GPC: Could you tell us a bit more about domestic black bean production?

Vanessa: In my opinion, its declined in recent years due to several factors. First, there is the matter of seed. There is only one nationally registered black bean variety. Its called Tacarigua and it is for small-scale production to be harvested manually. So we need to import seed and that increases the cost of production. We also need to make sure the imported seed adapts to Venezuela. Then there is the matter of prices, which have always fluctuated. There isn’t a fixed price and the black bean market has been regulated for many years. And we can add the use of inputs, which have been declining below what is need for the proper care of the crop. The large grower associations used to finance black bean production, but they are not doing that anymore. Lastly, there is the problem of theft. People steal the crop right off the farm.

For that reason, many growers are now planting green mung beans instead of black beans. Because green mung beans are not consumed domestically or even in neighboring countries there is no incentive to steal them.

This year, the lack of fuel and financing forced growers to reduce plantings. I don’t think there will be more than 5,000 MT of black bean production.

 

GPC: Getting back to mung beans, what were the early days like when you first began working with this new bean type?

Ramón: When we first started, we bought the crop directly from producers in Venezuela. Because they were basically using it as a cover crop, they practically gave it away. Then we converted the sesame plant into a bean plant, and also started developing our own seed. Yields and quality varies from grower to grower, but we have made great strides. On average, we are seeing yields of 900 – 1,100 kg/ha., and we have some growers that regularly produce yields above 1,100 kg/ha.

 

GPC: What where the challenges you faced in those early days?

Vanessa: It was a real challenge to convince growers to plant a green mung bean crop because growers in the area typically grow corn or rice, and there is no domestic market for green mung beans. So they were reluctant to seed it at first. But it is a beneficial crop for growers both agronomically as part of a crop rotation and financially because it is the first harvest of the year in South America.

We also had to convert our import office in Holland to an export office. And because we were the first to export green mung beans from Venezuela, we had to create the phytosanitary agreements with each of the destination countries. We also had to learn about the quality preferences at each destination. It was a lot of work, but even so we managed to export nine containers to Turkey the first year, and the second year we exported more than 100 containers.

Today, our major markets are Turkey, China and the United Arab Emirates, and this year we are also selling a lot to the Philippines. Pakistan is also an interesting market for us, and the United Kingdom has surprised me. We have sold more than 20 containers to packaging companies there that distribute throughout Europe.

 

GPC: You were the first to export mung beans from Venezuela, but now others have followed, right?

Ramón: Yes, the mung bean industry has grown in Venezuela and we are supportive of those who have followed. We sell them seed, help them obtain color sorters and other technologies, and offer them export consulting services through our office in Caracas. In some cases, we buy their production and export it ourselves, and in other cases we offer them our brokerage services.

Vanessa: We also share information with them because if someone else wants to export mung beans from Venezuela, we want them to do it right. It’s gratifying to see something you started catch on, but you want to make sure things are done right. We need to protect Venezuela’s reputation for quality mung beans.

 

GPC: And when it came to exporting out of Venezuela, what were the challenges you faced there?

Ramón: There is the unpredictability of doing business here. Once Vanessa and I were at the fair in Dubai and we closed a deal to ship 800 MT to India. But then there was political unrest and the country basically shutdown. There was no way to transport containers to the port and we were unable to fulfill the contract and we had to pay the client. It was a situation that was entirely out of our hands. We learned a lesson from it, though. Now we don’t sell containers unless they are practically at the port.

Vanessa: We also had to educate people form zero, and that was a difficult challenge. We stayed in the growing area for three months, teaching people there how to run the lab, how to fill the bags, how to load a container. We had to devise procedures because they didn’t exist.

Venezuela has been through a lot of changes in its recent history. We’ve gone from a subsidized agricultural sector to a very competitive one, where it is vital to improve yields and lower costs in order to remain competitive. Farming has changed from a family-run operation to an agri-business enterprise. And we had to change people’s perspective on green mung beans from that of a cover crop to a commercial crop, so that it can compete for farmland against sesame and corn. 

 

GPC: Do you see opportunities to expand mung bean or other bean exports in the future?

Ramón: Venezuela enjoys a strategic geographical location and farmers here are capable and experienced. With the economy devastated, there are more than 30 million acres of fertile farmland available and, because we are in the tropics, we grow two crops a year.   

Right now, we are undertaking a project to improve seed quality. We are importing green mung bean seed from Asia, and we are also conducting trials with other bean classes, such as Colombian bolon rojo beans. We are also working on black-eye pea seed, with seed that was brought to Venezuela from Brazil years ago, and also red cowpea seed. 

I see remarkable growth in the pulse sector in the future. Venezuela is an oil producing country and here we say that oil is the mother of all commodities, but today bean prices are higher than oil prices! We live in interesting times.

Vanessa: We are motivated to continue to grow our business. When people in Venezuela thank you for staying, for giving them work, that motivates us to keep working and expanding the business.

 

Mung Beans from Venezuela: An Interview with Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez and Vanessa Tejero Leon
Mung Beans from Venezuela: An Interview with Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez and Vanessa Tejero Leon
mung beans / Venezuela / Vanessa Tejero Leon / Ramón Enrique Alvarado Gimenez

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