In 2005 brothers David and Raul Bermeo Izurieta left their jobs in the corporate world to follow their entrepreneurial spirit. They were eager to start a new venture that would make a positive impact, without following the same conventional business model of most banana, coffee, fish and other export companies established in Ecuador. Part of a new breed, the Bermeo brothers envisioned a project based on social, environmental and health pillars that would bring sustainable development to their country. TerraFertil S.A. was born in 2006. Two friends from University, who shared the same ideas and values, joined them.
First they offered fresh pineapple, banana and mango bought from small producers. A few months later they realised that by growing goldenberries (also known as physallis, aguaymanto and Inca berries or Physalis peruviana) they would have a more positive impact on the Ecuadorian highlands, where small producers do not have many sources of income besides working for the flower industry. Roses are beautiful, but it is an industry known for its negative impact on the environment and it does not leave much income for the workers. The small orange fruit mainly used as a food decoration in the international market, met the three requirements the Bermeo brothers and their partners were seeking. “With goldenberries, 70 percent of the cost is man power. It is a crop that generates many jobs, can be grown in high volume without harming the environment and is a fruit rich in vitamin C, pectin and protein”, said David.
The four partners embarked on a strong product promotion at home and abroad. First, they bought goldenberries from direct small producers. By offering them and workers a much higher income than the flower industry, TerraFertil also earned FairTrade certification. When demand took off and they were running out of stock, they decided to grow goldenberries in their own farm to secure more orders and to educate themselves on the total production process.
Currently they are growing 120,000 plants in sixty hectares. Under a USAid program, small producers receive technical assistance from TerraFertil to grow the fruit on their own small fields and to be more involved in the project. “We have agronomists who visit their production sites and provide them with the plantings”, said David.
Although goldenberries also grow in other countries, with Colombia and Peru as important exporters of conventional quality, TerraFertil was the first company to develop the technology to farm them under organic certification. “One challenge was to sell a fruit little known; another to develop the method to grow it under organic certification”, said David. But one of the company’s strengths has been to identify opportunities and to take risks. “Processing fresh and dried mango, pineapple and banana continued as part of our business, but the goldenberries
became our main focus”, said David.
To diversify the business even further Raul moved to Mexico, where TerraFertil opened packaging and distribution facilities. “We realized that besides catering to the export market with high quality fresh and dried fruits grown in Ecuador, there was an opportunity to also serve our local and regional market with pre-packed dried fruits and nuts we could import from other countries”, said David.
Their Ecuadorian goldenberries became a hit in Turkey, a country which became their steady supplier of dates, hazelnuts andother dried foods not found in Latin America. To separate their export business from the import and retail operation, TerraFertil launched its own label, Nature’s Heart. Exports in bulk reach the European Union, Australia and the Middle East, while distribution of their own and imported dried goods and mixes under the Nature’s Heart brand is offered to all major retail chains and independent stores in Mexico, Ecuador Colombia and most recently, Peru. There are further distribution plans to expand in Latin America and to reach other regions like
North America, although fresh goldenberries are not allowed to enter the United States. Canada represents an attractive market for TerraFertil, because of growing interest in exotic organic fruits.
What started as a dream project for two brothers and their school friends five years ago, TerraFertil is today the largest independently owned producer and exporter of organic and fair trade goldenberries in Ecuador. With an annual turnover of US 12 million, 400 employees and operations in three countries, the company has a well diversified portfolio. It also distributes other brands in Mexico and Ecuador, such as Celestial Seasonings. “Selling has never been a problem for us”, said David. “But we have learned that healthy growth means to set up proper procedures and find the right people; pay as much attention to your suppliers as you do to your clients, take measured risks and work with integrity”.