Agriculture

Top 5 Tropical Fruit Exporters in 2023

Tropical fruit can be a money-spinner. These are the top five most popular tropical fruits with sizable export markets.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Shilpa Mukul

Bananas were the first tropical fruit to make their way to Europe after WWII. When the merchant ship SS Tilpa unloaded its cargo of 10 million bananas from the West Indies in 1945 at the port of Avonmouth in England, the tropical fruit was first treated with some suspicion, but quickly turned into a sought-after delicacy.

Bananas evoked luxury, sunniness, and hope in the postwar Europe, which had very little to be happy about.

The market for such delicacies was about to explode, thanks to the postwar economic boom in Western Europe and North America during the 1950s. Soon enough, the banana market turned into a billion-dollar trade, even influencing the politics of Central America between the 1950s and 1970s.

Over the following decades, a long list of other tropical and exotic fruits from Latin America, Africa, and South Asia also found favor in international markets.

Perhaps the latest example of this was the rise of avocado as the symbol of healthy living in the West. The exotic fruit, which was little-known before the turn of the millennium, suddenly became all the rage in the 2010s, with the global avocado market passing the USD5 billion mark in 2018.

The avocado market has grown to over USD15 billion now in 2023—signifying a threefold growth in the space of five years. More long-established tropical and exotic fruits also continue to have a lucrative market, though perhaps not as fast-growing as that of avocados.

Bananas (Ecuador)

Ecuador is almost universally known as the world’s leading exporter of fine bananas, thanks to its fertile soil and abundant rainfall.

However, bananas are not native to Ecuador or even to South America in general. Originating from the New Guinea and Indomalaya, banana plants were first cultivated in Central America in the 1910s at an industrial scale, and the practice took off in a big way later in the 1950s.

What is more, with an annual production of over 7 million tons, Ecuador is only the largest producer of fine bananas consumed as fresh fruit, whereas the less savory plantains (also known as cooking bananas) are produced in India (30 million tonnes) and China (12 million tonnes).

The global banana market is valued at roughly USD14 billion, of which USD4.5 billion belongs to Ecuador.

A couple of new exporters are giving Ecuadorian agrifood business a run for their money. In the LATAM region, Costa Rica and Colombia have long tried to claim their share of the market—so far each achieving an annual export (by value) of USD1 billion. But even across the ocean, the Philippines in Asia and Angola in Africa are also turning into exporters of this universally-loved fruit.

Avocados (Mexico)

Mexico, where avocados originate from, continues to be the market leader. The state of Michoacán is said to have the mineral-rich volcanic soil which is best suited to the cultivation of avocados.

Unlike the global banana market which is relatively old and stable, the avocado market is an emerging one. The market size has ballooned up from almost naught to USD15 billion in just under two decades. To put things in perspective, the avocado business is now even larger than the long-established banana trade, which has been important enough to influence the Central American politics for decades such as in the case of the Guatemalan coup of 1954.

Mexico enjoys an absolute dominance in the avocado trade, which is almost exclusively through exports to the US, generating roughly USD10 billion per year. The improbable story of the avocado trade shows how far a sector can go relying on a good combination of marketing and attributing health benefits to previously unappreciated food items.

Peru, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic have also started to supply the market with their crops in response to the avocado craze which has taken over the world in recent years.

Mangoes (India/Pakistan)

Native to South Asia and particularly the Indian Subcontinent, mangoes acquire their particular sweet flavor and soft texture in the hot and humid summers of the Subcontinent. The fruit enjoys great locally popularity and is known as the national fruit of Indian.

The gross global production of mangos is around 55 million tons per year, with India controlling over 45% of the market. The mango market is valued at over USD20 billion, due to the fruit’s increasing popularity in China and Russia.

As the popularity of mangoes is—albeit belatedly—also spreading to the West, the market is growing at the compound annual growth rate of 4.9%. This is over ten times larger than the growth rate forecasted for bananas.

The competition for the global mango market is getting fiercer, as Thailand and the Philippines are investing in the industrial cultivation and export of the fruit.

Coconuts (Indonesia)

Yes, we know that coconut is not a fruit in the botanical sense of the word, but for all intents and purposes it can be loosely regarded as one.

Indeed, it is the most iconic of all tropical fruits, featuring in many films and novels set in the tropics, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the American survival drama Castaway, where the lead character, portrayed by Tom Hanks, survives on coconuts.

The archipelago of Indonesia is where the world’s finest coconuts grow. The export of coconut and its processed byproducts such as coconut oil and coconut powder make up a notable part of the country’s agrifood sector.

There is a lot of room for added value in the coconut trade; from the total global market size of roughly USD21 billion in 2023, almost half of it can be accounted for by processed coconut derivatives.

In recent years, however, Thailand and the Philippines have challenged Indonesia’s dominance in the market.

Pineapples (Costa Rica)

Costa Rica’s lush lush plantations provide the majority of the pineapples that hit the global market. Pineapple is exported to the world both in bulk and in its more familiar sliced form, submerged in syrup inside a can.

The fresh pineapple market may be smaller than some other tropical fruits, given that Costa Rica, which provides over 60% of the global demand, exports no more than USD1.5 billion, by value.

However, there is potential for added value as the market for canned pineapples is quite sizable.

Although Pineapples are a quintessentially Central American fruit, they have also been cultivated in—yes you guessed it!—Thailand and the Philippines.

There are other exotic fruits in the world which may catch on soon. Papaya for example has already become mainstream in the West, while guava, passion fruit, dragon fruit, and lychee are on their way to popularity.