For more than a decade, Elizabeth Popowski has helped develop what’s poised to be the new jewel of New Zealand’s billion-dollar kiwifruit industry. So it was fitting that the Plant and Food Research scientist travelled overseas to see first-hand what consumers at the other end of the export market thought of it. The Crown research institute, exporter Zespri and consumer research specialists Forward have been running in-market surveys in Germany, Spain and China and Japan to gauge response to its proposed new green variety, which has been in pre-commercial trials since 2011.
The studies, involving focus groups, customer interviews and trials run in stores and homes, are exhaustive – and for good reason. The new variety would complement the industry’s star, the Green or Hayward, which has been a mainstay since it was first cultivated into New Zealand commercial crops more than 60 years ago. For decades, no other kiwifruit had been able to match its high yield, long storage time, flavoursome taste and nutritional firepower. Just one of the furry, oval-shaped fruits pack more fibre than four sticks of celery and more vitamin C than an orange.
In the 2015/16 season, Kiwi-grown Green kiwifruit sold 80.7 million trays, earning just over $1 billion in sales revenue. With a working title of Zespri New Green, the new fruit is being eyed as a replacement as, on top of what the Hayward offers, it’s better to eat, ripens easily and lasts longer. The Zespri board will consider whether to commercialise the variety next year, and the company has poured millions of dollars into assessing its potential performance in its key overseas markets. Speaking to the Herald from Tokyo, where she’s been dealing directly with customers, Popowski said it had been exciting to see reactions to what had quite literally been the fruit of her laboratory labours. “We’ve been sitting down with the customers giving them this new kiwifruit and the traditional Hayward, then seeing how they compare and following it up with a questionnaire,” she said.
“But actually seeing the in-store displays over here, and looking at how kiwifruit is marketed in other countries, is fantastic.”
Zespri Kiwifruit is now sold in 54 countries and Japan, where kiwifruit is predominantly eaten as an after-dinner snack, remained New Zealand’s highest-value market. This year, Zespri plans to sell over 23 million trays there, up from 21 million trays last year and 18 million trays in 2014. So far, response to the new variety was promising, with customers particularly happy with its taste and texture.
“We have a really loyal base of customers and they don’t want to move too far away from that green flavour that they really love,” said Zespri’s global marketing manager, Mel Auld.
“So it’s got to have that balance that still gives it a refreshing flavour, and the response we are receiving from all of the markets that we’ve been in so far is that it’s a highly viable, well-liked green variety of kiwifruit.” Popowski said the close working relationship between Zespri and Plant and Food Research had been the envy of other countries.
Each year, New Zealand spent around $20 million toward finding lucrative new cultivars including Government support, with researchers at a Te Puke site trawling through around 100,000 candidates.