Even outside of hipster enclaves like Brooklyn and San Francisco—whose denizens brunch on pricey iterations of avocado toast—it’s a great time to be in the avocado game. Around the world, the fruit is seeing high demand and higher prices, leading to an overall increase in global investment. Avocado theft—indicating a growing black market—is on the rise, and the fruit even has its own emoji. (It took the lowly taco an actual petition to get that far.) But for all their popularity, avocados are only starting to gain ground in a potentially huge market: China.
“Avocado is usually framed as a high-end product [here],” says Yi Chen, a former business development manager in Shenzhen, who acquired a taste for the fruit while studying abroad in California. “When you buy it, you are buying the feeling of luxury.”
China’s avocado consumption has long been dominated by first-tier cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, which have substantial populations of Western expats. It’s only recently that Chinese nationals have started to catch up. While still learning about the taste, preparation options, and health benefits of avocados—colloquially known as “alligator pears”—an increasing number of Chinese consumers are now adding the fruit to their diets. Thanks largely to increased demand by the country’s growing middle class, avocado imports to China jumped 375% between 2014 and 2015 according to Produce Report, a Chinese-based trade publication specializing in food and agricultural products.
“They’re looking at Western trends,” says Brian Gomez, vice president of avocado supplier Greenfruit Avocados. “[Chinese consumers] like to see what’s cool, what Americans and Europeans are doing.”
Americans and Europeans may be adorning their toast, salads, and sandwiches with the trendy superfruit, but they’re also fighting an obesity epidemic that has spurred broad interest in healthier foods like avocado. In China, health is similarly top of mind. Forty-five percent of Chinese respondents to a 2014 Nielsen survey considered themselves overweight; 47% were willing to pay a premium for “all-natural” foods.
“Chinese people are very concerned about their health,” says Mabel Zhuang, founder of Produce Report, which covers Chinese produce trends. Zhuang says the increased demand for avocados are a natural consequence.
Avocados aren’t linked to traditional Chinese cuisine, so getting them in front of consumers has been a gradual process. Western-style eateries—organic salad bars, juice and smoothie bars, Mexican-style restaurants—often have avocado products on their menus, but recently locals in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have also begun to purchase the fruit from upscale supermarkets, and online. The cost has fluctuated over the past two years, hovering around 15 yuan ($2.26) per avocado, on average, according to Shanghai Daily. That price point is on par with a little over one pound of chicken breast, or 1.5 liters of domestic beer.
But price isn’t the only hurdle: Specialty fruits supermarket Pagoda saw avocado sales soar after it started giving out recipes, preparation instructions, and free samples.
“Average sales were around 0.7 pieces” per day across all locations, says Frank Hong, Pagoda’s director of overseas procurement. “After this experiment, we found out sales could end up being 10 [avocados] per day.” The company, which has 1,400 locations in China and started its avocado-education initiatives three years ago, now sells an average of 35 avocados per day per location.
All this demand has put a strain on avocado exporters—imports of Mexican avocados to China have been growing by 200% a year, and both Peru and Chile have starting exporting to China. Organizations in South Africa, New Zealand, and the United States are also considering exporting avocados to China.
Efforts to grow the fruit locally, which have struggled in the past, may get renewed focus in light of the higher demand. Thibaud Andre, a senior consultant at Daxue Consulting, a market research and management consulting firm with a focus on the Chinese market, says that “there’s a willingness [by the government] to develop local production in specific sectors,” adding that the government can pass policies to help Chinese growers.
“Local production will be a little bit cheaper,” he says. “It will more easily get access to distribution channels.” That could open avocado consumption up to even smaller markets.
For now, the fruit remains a special treat for the health-conscious, one Chen of Shenzhen likens to a wearable fitness-tracker. “I don’t have to have a Jawbone app to remind me that I didn’t walk enough today,” he says. “Who would like to have it comes down to who really cares about their health.”