Darío Alzate Medina, the founder and general manager of Aburrá, Ltd, one of the fastest growing companies in Colombia’s food industry, gives us a privileged look at the latest developments in his country.

By Dario Bard

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Recent news out of Colombia includes reports of unrest in the agricultural sector, restrictions on pulse imports and negotiations with the FARC rebel group. But at the same time, there are indications that the country is poised to become one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies.

“We’ve got a stronger economy right now,” says Darío Alzate Medina, founder and general manager of Aburrá Ltd, one of Colombia’s best known food companies. “International confidence in Colombia has been restored, and we are seeing increased foreign investment and exports. Free trade agreements have elevated our nation’s profile and we are living in a more globalized economy.”

Don Darío, as Alzate is widely known, is one of the most respected businessmen in Colombia’s food industry, with a reputation for honesty that extends beyond Colombia’s borders. IFT invited Don Darío to share his experiences with our readers and to provide an insider’s perspective on recent developments in Colombia’s agricultural sector.

IFT: How did you get your start in this business?

Darío Alzate Medina: I’ve been involved in sales since 1971, through family ties. The first grains I sold were corn and sorghum, and also other products like flour, rice and cacao. I went to school in the commercial sector of the City of Medellin, in the neighborhood of Guayaquil, where I had the opportunity to work alongside experienced traders, and that’s how my career got started. What I know about grains I learned from experience, and that experience gave me a deep understanding of this business. I sold both national and imported rice. I also began selling national and imported beans, and when it came to quality, I had good teachers who passed along some of their wisdom.

Estoy vinculado a la actividad comercial desde el año 1971, esto por influencia familiar, los primeros granos que comercialicé fueron maíz, sorgo, y otros productos como harina de arroz y cacao. Hice mi escuela en un sector comercial de la ciudad, llamado Guayaquil, donde tuve oportunidad de relacionarme con los comerciantes experimentados de la época y al lado de ellos fui desarrollando mi carrera como comerciante. Nací empírico en estos de granos pero la experiencia que fui adquiriendo me fueron dando un conocimiento muy profundo, tuve oportunidad de comercializar con arroz, nacional e importado. También empecé a vender fríjoles nacionales e importados, y para aprender de calidad tuve buenos maestros que transmitieron parte de su conocimiento.

IFT: How did Aburrá get its start?

Darío Alzate Medina: In 1980, I started working at the Antioquia Wholesale Exchange, where I still do business, and in 1985 I founded the company I currently run, Aburrá, Ltd. The objective was to sell healthy, nutritionally whole products, like lentils and peas, and also seeds, exclusively for birds. Granos y Cereales Aburrá was born with those three products, four employees and a semi-automatic packing machine, with little know-how, but a lot of drive. We began by buying raw material from a large importer, and that’s how we took our first steps. We grew quickly, and in no time, beans constituted a key product in our portfolio.

En el año de 1980 me trasladé a trabajar a la Central Mayorista de Antioquia, donde aún permanezco y en el año de 1985 fundé la Empresa que actualmente dirijo, Aburrá Ltda. el objetivo claro fue comercializar productos sanos, completos nutricionalmente, como la lenteja y la arveja y agregarle el alpiste, exclusivo para aves. Con estos tres productos , 4 personas y una máquina empacadora semiautomática nació Granos y Cereales Aburrá, con poco conocimiento sobre lo que íbamos a hacer, pero con muchos deseos. Empezamos comprando la materia prima a un importador grande y así dimos nuestros primeros pasos. Crecimos rápido, al poco tiempo el fríjol ya era un producto fundamental en nuestro portafolio, empezamos a importar de Canadá y luego conocimos productos americanos.

We began importing from Canada and later we came to know American products. The U.S. Pea and Lentil Council paid us a visit, and we traveled to the U.S. at their invitation, and got to see the fields and learn about beans, lentils, popcorn, peas and chickpeas, as well as other food crops. Our portfolio kept growing. All the products I’ve mentioned so far were in the market, under our brand name. And we felt the need to create a nutrition division to teach people how to cook and identify legumes. In 2000, we changed our name to Aburrá, Ltd., with the slogan, “The cream of the crop.” The name Aburrá comes from the Aburrae people who lived in the valley where Medellin is located. The slogan indicates that what we consider to be most important is people, and then top quality products. The logo is three Aburrae natives, named Life, Love and Peace; they have a child named Joy.

Tuvimos una visita del Concilio De Arvejas y Lentejas americanas, viajamos a Estados Unidos, invitados por ellos, conocimos los campos , aprendimos de fríjoles, lentejas, maíz pop, arvejas, garbanzos, entre otros. El portafolio seguía creciendo, todos los productos mencionados anteriormente ya estaban en el mercado, con nuestra marca. Tuvimos la necesidad de crear un departamento de nutrición, para enseñarle a la gente a preparar y diferenciar las leguminosas. En el año 2000 transformamos nuestro nombre, para pasar a ser Aburrá Ltda, con el slogan: “lo mejor de la cosecha”. Nuestro nombre viene de una tribu, los aburraes, y que habitó en el valle, donde hoy está nuestra ciudad. El slogan significa, que para nosotros lo más importante es la gente y luego, los productos de la mejor calidad. El logo son tres indiecitos de la tribu ABURRAES. Se llaman vida, amor y paz, tienen un hijo que se llama Alegría

IFT: What are the biggest markets for Aburrá products and what are your most important trade partners?

Darío Alzate Medina: Colombia is a consumer of legumes and the domestic market has great potential to expand, but investment is needed, and there isn’t a national or international organization to address this need. I think, when it comes to legumes, an investment in training would result in market growth. We are in the health food age and people are starting to realize the importance of consuming legumes.

Colombia es un país consumidor de leguminosas y tiene un amplio potencial para crecer, pero hay que invertir, ninguna institución nacional e internacional se preocupa. Pienso que con una inversión en capacitaciones sobre las leguminosas, el mercado podría crecer, estamos en la época de alimentos sanos y la gente va entendiendo la importancia de consumirlas.

Colombia produces 130,000 MT of beans per year, and per capita consumption is 3.5 kg. We have two harvests: one in January and another in August. The country imports approximately 25,000 MT of beans from Ecuador, the U.S., Canada and China. Colombia has a population of 45 million and a stable economy, so there are many opportunities for growth when it comes to legumes, popcorn and other products. Investments are needed to foster a culture of consumption for all these products. Aburrá has developed clubs for housewives that provide recipes; right now, we have a nutritionist, a chef and a marketing staff of 60 to develop education programs. This has been very important in terms of brand positioning: we are in 20 of Colombia’s departments, have generated 200 jobs and are exporting products to the U.S., Spain, England and the Antilles. Lentils are our best selling product, accounting for 25 percent of our sales. With the U.S., we developed a very advanced concept of quality, broadening our relationship through the Council, and we are importing better quality beans, peas, lentils, popcorn and sunflower seeds, but unfortunately we don’t have much support in the way of marketing. Canada has also been important to our growth. Other countries that provide products for our line of food items include Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Thailand and Greece. We import our popcorn form Argentina, and every day we have more and more popcorn consumers.

Producimos 130.000 ton. de frijol al año y el consumo por persona es de 3.5 kg., importamos de Ecuador, USA, Canadá, China, aproximadamente 25000 tm. Tenemos dos cosechas grandes, enero y agosto. Colombia tiene 45 millones de habitantes, con una economía estable y muchas oportunidades de crecimiento para las leguminosas, maíz para las crispetas y otros productos. Hay que invertir para afianzar la cultura de consumo de todos estos productos. Aburrá ha desarrollado clubes de amas de casa, con material de recetas; actualmente tiene una nutricionista, un chef y 60 mercaderistas para desarrollar programas de enseñanza. Esto nos ha permitido un posicionamiento de marca muy interesante, estamos en 20 departamentos del país, ya generamos 200 empleos, y estamos exportando productos a USA, España, Inglaterra y las Antillas. El productos que más vendemos es la lenteja, y corresponde al 25% de nuestras ventas. Hemos desarrollado un concepto de calidad muy avanzado, con USA hemos ampliado nuestras relaciones, a través del Concilio de fríjoles, arvejas, lentejas, maíz para crispetas, semilla de girasol, estamos importando productos de la mejor calidad, desafortunadamente sin mucho apoyo para campañas de difusión. Canadá también ha sido muy importante en nuestro desarrollo, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Perú, Thailandia, Grecia, son otro países que nos proveen de productos para nuestra marca. El maíz pop lo importamos de Argentina y es un producto que dia a dia tiene mas consumidores.

IFT: Aburrá’s website highlights several of the company’s corporate social responsibility programs. Tell me a little bit more about that aspect of the company.

Darío Alzate Medina: Aburrá is a leader when it comes to social responsibility. We have programs for children, including a Friends of Aburrá Club, and programs for senior citizens. We also take care of our own employees, offering personal growth seminars. And we have many other activities, including events at public schools and colleges. But the one activity I’m proudest of is the Aburrá Club for Little Cooks, focused exclusively on children. This project works in-depth with the people who define the food culture of the household. All of these activities are carried out with the company’s own resources.

En el campo de la Responsabilidad Social, Aburrá es líder, hacemos programas con niños, tenemos un club llamado: Club de amigos Aburrá”, atendemos personas de la tercera edad, tenemos atención con nuestros propios empleados, dictamos seminarios de crecimiento personal, hacemos eventos en escuelas públicas, colegios, entre tantas actividades. La actividad que más destaco es el “Club de Cocineritos Aburrá”, enfocada expresamente al público infantil, y que es un trabajo profundo con las personas que están definiendo las culturas alimentarias en el hogar. Todas estas actividades son realizadas con recursos propios de nuestra Organización.

IFT: What changes do you see occurring in Colombia’s food industry?

Darío Alzate Medina: We need ready-to-eat products, and that’s why Aburrá sells precooked, canned lentils, beans, peas, peas and carrots and legume salads, where all you have to do is heat them and they are ready to eat, in easy-to-open packaging and of the best quality.

Hablando de cambios, necesitamos productos listos para consumir, por eso Aburrá comercializa lentejas preparadas en lata, fríjoles, arvejas, arvejas con zanahorias, ensaladas de legumbre, solo es calentarla y consumirlas. En presentación abre fácil, y de la mejor calidad.

IFT: How does Arrubá compete on supermarket shelves when the supermarkets sell similar products under their own brands?

Darío Alzate Medina: We sell our brand-name products at supermarkets; the price is higher, but there is demand for it. That’s the power of our branding.

Les vendemos la marca y su precio al consumidor final es más alto, pero tenemos demanda, es el poder de la marca.

IFT: What are your thoughts on the government’s negotiations with the FARC rebel group?

Darío Alzate Medina: I think more equitable land distribution will improve agriculture in Colombia. There will be greater participation on the part of producers as long as incentives exist and there are guaranteed markets for their products. I see it as a positive for Aburrá.

Yo pienso que una repartición mas equitativa de la tierra, mejora el tema agrícola, habrá mas participación de los agricultores, siempre y cuando existan incentivos y un mercado más asegurado para sus productos. Es un beneficio para Aburrá.

IFT: On October 7, the Colombian government issued Decree 2210, restricting imports from the Andean Community of Nations and Mercosur nations. What are your thoughts about this?

Darío Alzate Medina: The matter of import restrictions on beans from the Andean Community of Nations—Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia—and the Mercosur countries—Chile and Argentina—is worrying and I hope it doesn’t last long. It is just politics and is the result of the recent farmers strikes.

El tema de las restricciones a las importaciones de fríjoles de los países de la CAN- Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia- y los países de MERCOSUR – Chile y Argentina-, es preocupante y espero que no dure, solo es un tema político y se debe a los paros efectuados por los campesinos hace algunos días.

IFT: How is the trade relationship with Venezuela?

Darío Alzate Medina: Venezuela needs Colombian products, but payment is complicated and Aburrá does not sell product to Venezuela. For some time now, there hasn’t been a flow of products from Venezuela to Colombia.

Venezuela está necesitando productos colombianos, pero el tema de los pagos es muy complicado y Aburrá no vende productos a ese país. Hace mucho tiempo se terminó la entrada de productos desde Venezuela hacia Colombia.

IFT: What message do you have for readers of International Food Trader Magazine?

Darío Alzate Medina: In closing, I just wish to underscore the need for campaigns to increase the consumption of legumes, popcorn and other products, and urge producing countries like the U.S. to invest in these efforts and position their brands.

Finalmente quiero insistir en la campañas para incrementar el consumo de las leguminosas, maíz de crispetas y otras, que países productores como Estados Unidos, inviertan en estos desarrollos y posicionen sus marcas.