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Ecuador Gains Ground with Palm Heart, Secures 75% of the Global Market

Published on April 16, 2024

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Pronaca’s Inaexpo commands a 43% market share. While Costa Rica initiated palm heart production, Ecuador has overtaken it over the years.

Long palmetto stems are transported by truck from the plantations of 135 farmers to the Agricultural Exporting Industry (Inaexpo) facility in Santo Domingo. Here, nearly all the production is processed and exported. Over the years, Ecuador has secured 75% of the global market, outpacing its competitors.

At the plant, several teams handle the palm hearts, ensuring compliance with both national and international standards. The products range from traditional whole hearts, pieces, cubes/chopped, and medallions, to value-added products like spaghetti, lasagna, salad, and mash—all made from palm heart.

The facility, part of Pronaca, exports 99.5% of its palm heart production. “In any country where palm hearts are consumed, you’ll find Inaexpo,” says plant manager Rolando Gutiérrez. “We are present in Europe, North America, Africa, and we’ve recently entered Australia in 2021. Now, we are aiming to penetrate the Japanese market; we’ve been working on this for two to three years.” This year has seen promising advances, with reciprocal visits between Inaexpo and Japanese counterparts occurring just three weeks ago, raising high expectations for success.

Attempts to enter the Russian market were unsuccessful, and although initial regulations in China did not recognize palm hearts as edible, prospects remain.

Inaexpo was established in 1992, after the Bakker family explored diversification options for Pronaca during a 1990 trip. They recognized Ecuador’s potential for palm heart cultivation due to its ideal growing conditions.

Post-establishment, Inaexpo began acquiring farms and sourcing seeds, establishing Ecuador’s first palmetto plantation. “We are still producing in the very first palmetto plantation cultivated in Ecuador,” remarks Gutiérrez. Plantations began in 1992 and 1993, with harvesting starting in 1994. The plant itself, still operational today, was constructed in April 1994, and just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Gutiérrez notes that Inaexpo leads the world in the marketing and production of cultivated palm hearts. “Although it was a Costa Rican company leading until 2001, we have been the frontrunners since then.”

Ecuador’s Dominance in Palm Heart Exports

In 2023, Ecuador exported 1,604 out of 2,152 containers of palm heart sold worldwide, with Inaexpo producing 926 of these containers. This represents a 43% share of the global market, while Ecuador holds 75% overall. “Countries like Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Peru are increasingly losing ground,” Gutiérrez adds.

The primary market is the United States, absorbing 43% of exports. Europe and Africa follow with 35%, with France being the most significant among them. Other markets include Argentina (8%), Chile (6%), Israel (3%), Mexico (2%), Venezuela (1%), and other countries (3%).

While Argentina’s share has decreased from 30% due to local issues, there is hope that stability under new governments will revive its market position. Mexico’s situation remains unchanged, with no indications of disruptions.

In the U.S., the focus is on value-added products like palm heart spaghetti and salads enriched with broad beans, chocho, beans, quinoa, and other ingredients to enhance flavor and complement the palm heart.

Agricultural Operations and Innovations

Leonardo Pincay, supervisor of Inaexpo farms, reports that the agricultural division manages about 4,500 hectares, representing 40% of the national area. The division includes 135 farmers—130 conventional and 5 organic certified—impacting over 1,200 families involved in the palmetto operation.

Gutiérrez mentions that Inaexpo directly produces 7% of the output, with the remainder coming from integrated producers. Each operation harvests around 550 stems per day. Additionally, recent innovations include mapping farms with drones.

The Heart of Palm Production Process

Pincay explains the process starts with the chontaduro fruit, naturally occurring in the East, from which seeds are extracted. These seeds, collected only between January and March, germinate in 45 to 60 days. The seedlings are ready for field transplantation after 5 to 6 months in the nursery. From seed collection to initial stem harvest, the cycle spans about two years, culminating in processing and export.


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