However, the current demand for sweet potatoes in Europe is uncertain: growth potential may be limited and the USA already adequately supplies the European sweet potato market. Meanwhile, the African sweet potato market is undergoing a tangible boom.
In China, which accounts for two-thirds of the global sweet potato consumption, the market is experiencing some sluggishness. Total consumption volumes are currently indicating a slight downward trend and the figures per capita are down: from 2007-2014, this index figure had an average rate of growth of -1.5%. Despite the sweet potato’s traditional consumption and popularity in China, it has recently seen a drop in its relevancy as a product. This, in turn, has forced producers to reduce acreage and source additional sales and distribution options.
In line with the research completed by IndexBox Marketing, international trading on the sweet potato market remains underdeveloped: the amount sent for export accounts for only 0.3% of production volume. In fact, consumption volumes of sweet potato are currently equivalent to product output. The USA is the largest supplier of the product, with a 45% global exports share. Demand for the sweet potato away from those areas where the product is cultivated is limited, as a result of the product’s specificity and similar root crops being available worldwide. The sweet potato definitely has various health benefits, but the product’s popularity in Europe currently remains constrained, due to the reasons listed above.
Africa holds the current development prospects for the global sweet potato market: here sweet potatoes form part of the daily diet. The main market players are the Sub-Saharan countries. The favourable cultivation conditions, and an increasing demand for the product, are the two main factors currently enhancing the expansion of the sweet potato market in these areas.
The graph detail below depicts those African countries currently in the global top-15, with regard to levels of sweet potato consumption. In total, this data for the countries in Africa listed below, accounts for 17% of global consumption. Per capita consumption in each country exceeds the global average, at 14kg/person. Rwanda and Angola indicate the maximum consumption figures, at 89 kg/person and 87 kg/person, respectively. The consumption rate is currently increasing in most of the countries displayed below.
The countries in Africa operate exclusively on the domestic market, as is the case with China: product demand is met and supplied by domestic resources. As Table 1 shows, sweet potato production in Africa is indicating an upward trend, unlike production levels in China, the largest market player. In Nigeria, the second country in the world in terms of sweet potato output, the average annual rate of growth from 2007-2014 reached +5.2%. It was followed by Tanzania, with a rate of growth of +14.2%, and Ethiopia, with +26.3%.
In the medium term, African sweet potato producers can continue to increase production yield, given the proximity to other developing countries at the African continent and the relatively unsaturated domestic market. African countries are currently lagging behind Chinese figures for sweet potato output, both in terms of acreage and product yield. The sweet potato yield in most African countries is 2-3 times lower than the Chinese figure, and in most countries, this yield is not increasing. State regulation and investment are needed to advance that product output. The economic situation in most of the countries, however, is currently too inauspicious to secure the agricultural sector’s tangible development.
Sweet potato demand in African countries exceeds output capacity, when factors such as population growth and food problems are taken into consideration. At the same time, the industry does not, as yet, have the capacity to provide enough supply, although this is now indicating an upward trend. Therefore, Africa represents a probable sales market for the Chinese sweet potato producers, should domestic product demand in China slump further. The Chinese producers’ prices are also highly competitive with regard to the African market. Competing with the African market will be difficult, however, when logistics costs are factored in. This being the case, if the average producer price for sweet potatoes in China in 2014 was 257.5 USD/tonne (approx. equal to the global average), then the average producer price in Nigeria, Africa’s largest consumer, reached 317.5 USD/tonne, some 22% higher than the global price figure. At the same time, prices were significantly lower in Ethiopia (98.6 USD/tonne), and Tanzania (151.3 USD/tonne).
Despite the stagnation currently underway in China’s sweet potato market, the country remains a key player, both in terms of product output and consumption. Increased sweet potato trade between China and economically-developed countries is highly unlikely. Factors that would prevent any trade development include the regional presence of similar root-type crops and sweet potato consumption requirements in those places where the product is cultivated. The prospect of making a singular supply of sweet potatoes in its potential capacity as an exotic product to the ‘gourmet’ market is now a niche that is already full. In the near future, the fast-paced African market will gradually reach a par with China in terms of consumption, thereby becoming a prominent prospective sales market for Chinese sweet potato producers.