Agroexport’s founder on how "Blanditos", the first cooked bean processing plant, is developing a promising future for Nicaraguan bean farmers.

By Santiago del Carril

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Commercial Marketing Manager Álvaro Cantillano founded Agroexport S.A. nearly ten years ago with his business partner, just as demand for dry beans started to take off. At that time, although Nicaragua had become one of Central America’s most productive pulse regions, Cantillano realized something was lacking; the country did not have a bean processing plant.

“You would go to the supermarket and find processed bean products from the US, Guatemala, Costa Rica, but not from Nicaragua,” explained Cantillano. It was out of this need, Agroexport saw an opportunity and was able to obtain the necessary loans to invest US$ 2 million into building the country’s first bean-processing plant.

Today Cantillano foresees, “this will help our exports, and the Nicaraguan market, so they can get processed beans from their own country instead of importing them. With demand continuing to grow abroad and domestically, the plant is a significant step forward for Nicaragua’s bean industry and the region, as the plant has begun producing more than 300,000 pounds of processed beans per month.

In a recent interview, Cantillano shares his story with IFT and his hopes for Nicaragua’s prosperous future.

IFT:  How did you get involved in Agroexport S.A.?

Cantillano:  Well, I had my first child, and I needed to earn more to sustain my family. So I joined a couple of other partners that were already working with the commercialization of beans, who knew the bean trade industry.  We started the company about ten years ago and began to export red and black beans primarily to the US and other parts of Central America. We also ship a lot of different products like chia. Obviously, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine, there were failures along the road, but we had to keep on going.

IFT:  What led Agroexport SA to invest in a new bean-processing plant?

Cantillano:  We decided to invest in a new plant because we saw an opportunity. Nicaragua is one of the biggest producers of beans in Central America, but it didn’t have a factory to grind beans or pack them, so many of the processed beans came from the United States or other parts of Central America. So you would go to the supermarket and find products from the US, Guatemala, Costa Rica but not from Nicaragua. That’s why we decided to invest in a first-rate plant that would allow us to add value to the country’s primary products, by selling entirely cooked and refried beans that don’t need preservatives or any chemicals.

IFT:  How many processed beans do you expect the plant to produce?

Cantillano:  We are producing an estimated 300 thousand pounds of cooked beans per month at the moment, and we haven’t even reached full capacity yet.  We have a much larger capacity to process and sell more beans. But the market will decide that. We have space to expand and purchase more equipment if we need to. Nicaragua produces per year 5 million and a half quintales (550,000 mts), and it’s still growing. It’s becoming the seventh biggest product that the country exports.  Around 20 years ago it didn’t appear in any list of exports, and now it’s becoming the country’s most important one.

IFT:  How will your new plant bring value to the country’s domestic industry of beans and farmers?

Cantillano:  It will first help exports. The plant’s sophisticated technology allows us to produce a high-quality and very competitive bean without chemicals, giving it an excellent traditional taste.  An estimated 80 percent are cooked, and another 20 percent are refried – in Nicaragua, we don’t eat that many refried beans. This will allow Nicaraguans to get processed beans from their own country instead of having to import. Also, the way we cook and prepare the processed beans permits them to last for a year. The equipment we use in the plant is what permits us to produce a very high-quality product that has a very long shelf life.

IFT:  Is this the first plant in Nicaragua that processes beans? How many are there in the region?

Cantillano:  Yes, it is. In Guatemala there are three, El Salvador has two, Honduras has around three and Costa Rica has a couple.

So, this bean processing plant is essential for Nicaragua?

Cantillano:  It is giving us Nicaraguans the pleasure of eating beans the way Nicaraguans like. The way they produce beans in Guatemala, for example, isn’t the same as here. The Nicaraguan bean is a little bit more humid, while beans from other Central American countries tend to be drier. What is very important is that there are no preservatives, none of the other plants’ process beans like we do. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that using preservatives is evil, but it changes the product’s taste. A natural product is always better. That is why we are very competitive; we invested and purchased 80 percent of our equipment from Europe, and we will be exporting a food item that people in the US will want to eat.

IFT:  In how long do you expect to recover the investment?

Cantillano:  Well, we are already selling on the market, but it’s difficult to estimate that. In the past years, we only invested. Only now are we starting to make money. But things are moving. We won’t invest in another plant in the short-run, but we could invest in more equipment or increase our production volume later.

IFT:  What are your main export destinations in the United States?

Cantillano:  We are exporting to an estimated ten states in the United States, from the East to West Coast. The United States is a significant importer since it is a stable market, and they are much more relaxed with their imports. We are exporting around 15 containers per month to the United States, and we have yet to meet our full potential.

IFT:  What are some challenges you’ve encountered in creating the bean plant?

Cantillano:  Money mainly, you have to have the money to guarantee your ability to purchase the necessary equipment. For example, to buy bean-processing equipment from Spain, we had to get a loan. Luckily we got support from a national bank that understood how our plant would add value to what it produced and how this would benefit the Nicaraguan economy. That is why they invested in this project and were very flexible in their terms. Nicaragua, like other countries in Latin America in general, produces a lot of primary products, but not many have value added to them. The economies in the region are developed by investments in local companies and processes that will add value to the primary products.

IFT:  What percentage of your beans comes from cooperatives, producer associations or individual producers?

Cantillano:  Our factory is located in a region of the Matagalpa department that produces three harvests per year; it’s a very productive region. There you have cooperatives and individual producers. We get most of our beans from individual producers. In general, the agriculture economic structure in Nicaragua is based on small farmers. There are around 100,000 small producers in these areas – there aren’t any significant producers with large estates such as in the sugar or coffee industries.  With the help of the government and NGOs, small producers are improving their production. They are using better seeds, fertilizers and other equipment to cultivate.

IFT:  How has the CAFTA-DR the United States Central American Dominican Republica Free Trade Agreement affected bean producers?

Cantillano:  There are always winners and losers. The United States is the largest market for the products we produce. CAFTA-DR is helping us, as it provides a more stable market and growing demand. And it has made the import-export processes easier. Before Nicaragua would lose out on opportunities. However, at the same time, I’m not saying this is a panacea, but it’s moving the economy and investment.  In total, almost 40 percent of Nicaragua’s exports go to the United States.

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Santiago del Carril, IFT Journalist

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