Asocolflores president Augusto Solano sat down with FloraCulture International, December 2021, to speak about topical issues such as supply chain disruption, sustainability, vertical business integration, and the importance of raising the voice of Colombia’s sustainable flower industry among international organisations.
Surrounded by a massive display of flowers with roses, carnations and alstroemeria reigning supreme at his organisation’s Outstanding Varieties Competition, he complimented all participants for sending in such top quality flowers. He says, “This competition reaffirms the commitment and boost of the floriculture industry in times of economic reactivation when, more than ever, we are committed to generating employment and exports for our country. As a business association, we believe these events show the international community that the Colombian flower growers continue working and continue to innovate and set trends within the sector.”
Solano adds that through this event, Asocolflores associated with flower growers and breeders put Colombia put on the world map as the leading flower producer, creating the right business environment for exporters to conquer new markets.
Established in 1973, Asocolflores is the official voice of Colombia’s cut flower and cut foliage export. Its association is a member of AIPH – International Association of Horticultural Producers – and its 300 members account for 90 per cent of Colombia’s flower exports.
Together with 45 employees, Asocolflores is much more than a promotion organisation as it actively seeks solutions for today’s environmental, societal and economic challenges facing the Colombian floriculture industry. Cross-industry collaboration is critical to achieving sustainable development goals.
As such, Ascolflores is also one of the 21 members of CECODES, (Asociación Consejo Empresarial Colombiano para el Desarrollo Sostenible), the Colombian Business Council for Sustainable Development, established in 1993 to promote sustainable development in Colombia. Solano is known for being one of its co-founders.
CECODES represents more than five per cent of Colombia’s GDP, which amounts to about 5,600 million US dollars a year in exports. It accounts for more than 600,000 direct and indirect jobs and with Asocolflores it includes member companies such as Holcim, BASF, Grupo Bolivar, and Hitachi.
Notably, CECODES is the Colombian chapter of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global, CEO-led organisation of more than 200 leading businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world.
Solano, who also acts as CECODES’s president, says that sustainability is one of the most topical issues. Through CECODES, Asocolflores provides valuable input for WBCSD’s Business Manifesto for Climate Recovery, a document report presented at this year’s COP26 in Glasgow.”
He adds, “The overall goal is to translate the combined knowledge into practical business solutions for Asocolflores members and their employees. So, Asocolflores runs housing and in-farm schooling programmes with environmental and social responsibility training. Florverde embodies all our activities geared towards reducing our carbon footprint. Last but not least, we have built a reputation in scientific research carried out by Ceniflores, our established floriculture research centre.”
Ximena Franco Villegas headed the Sustainability and Environmental Affairs Department of Asocolflores until September this year, when she stepped down. She was a panellist at AIPH’s recent Path to Sustainability Conference, of which you can hear recordings here.
Solano regrets her departure but also understands the human need to look for new horizons. “We respect that good employees leave us after a while. Happily, the team is strong, and we are currently looking for the right person to succeed, Ximena,” says Solano. He adds that the candidate needs more than top credentials; they need to understand Florverde. The philosophy is not something that easily compares with the Dutch certification scheme MPS, which he says is primarily a system to hand out certificates awarding sustainable growers. “ Florverde is a management tool to show growers from Colombia and Ecuador that they can do growing using sustainable best practices in a commercially viable way.”
Our discussion veers to the pandemic and the inevitable question of how Covid-19 impacted sales? “During the first months of the pandemic in 2020, sales dropped by four per cent, but in the summer, the business was quick to pick up. For our member growers, summer is often a difficult period but in an ironic twist of fate, the pandemic caused sales in July 2020 to increase by 15 per cent more than July 2019. Overall, Asocolflores reported 2020 sales that were 11 per cent higher than in 2019. Once all have been accounted for, the outlook for 2021 is rosy. “It may well be our best year ever. This summer, for example, growers were selling out of products.”
Solano stresses that Asocolflores’ role is not to get directly involved in specific commercial deals but to stimulate and create a hassle-free business environment. “Among our most important clients are the big box stores in the USA. These corporations are willing to pay higher prices for Colombian flowers. So, we liaise with airlines and responsible authorities to call for extra charter services. The most significant challenges growers and exporters are facing are not in crop production but logistics. Air cargo rates are much higher due to higher fuel costs and the lack of belly capacity on commercial aeroplanes. To mitigate this at the moment, we see planes coming on regular flights from Dubai to Miami include an extra roundtrip between Miami to Bogotá to ship flowers to Miami.”
Is transporting flowers by the sea a viable alternative in the future? “In 2017, the AIPH International Grower of the Year was Flores El Capiro, a Colombian chrysanthemum grower who sells flowers worldwide using sea freight. “They continue to do so but more generally speaking; I foresee a limited future for sea freight. Those flowers with a more limited vase life will continue transport via air.”
In Europe, there’s a tendency towards vertical integration with businesses bringing previously outsourced operations in-house. Solano illustrates the situation between Colombia and the USA. “Many stakeholders from within our industry and import organisations are Miami-based. Also, the transport outbound from Miami to the cities in the USA is smooth, and the road haulage is very professional.
In the past, there have been attempts to create logistical hubs in other locations such as Chicago. But these failed as the operations appeared to become too complex. To put it in a global perspective, the reality for agriculture is changing with the number of farmers dropping or farmers are getting older with no succession. Colombia is no exception. However, production areas continue to expand.
Overall there are fewer but more large-scale companies. Meanwhile, at Asocolflores we try to stimulate young people with good schooling and good education in specific horticultural schools. But the reality is that most breeders are from abroad, with Colombian flower breeders being in a clear minority. While growers in Ecuador focus on roses, Colombian floriculture deserves credit for product diversification.”
Solano has been at the helm of Asocolflores for the past 20 years, receiving several accolades and prestigious awards for his excellent work. He hopes to serve the organisations in the years to come.
He says, “Ultimately, Asocolflores is an association where the members have a board, which ultimately decides how long I stay in charge of the organisation. I do hope to do so for many more years. However, perhaps I will increasingly focus on external matters rather than running the day-to- day operations, which our management team will gradually perform.”