ECUADOREAN SPICE

Ecuador 2014 | INDUSTRY & MINING | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Wilson León Lee, Executive President of Grupo Oriental, on challenges of growing an Ecuadorean food brand, product innovation, exporting internationally.

Wilson León Lee
BIOGRAPHY
Wilson León Lee was born in Hong Kong, but came to Ecuador to investigate opportunities in the agro-industrial sector in 1975. Since then, he has developed a distribution network across the whole country offering diverse food options for differing segments of the market. He has also developed subsidiaries and sister companies such as the Clínica de Medicina Natural y Acupuntura China (CHINAMEDIC) in Guayaquil, and the Restaurante Cantonès Internacional, in addition to the new Borojó Amazónico (Borama) agro-industrial plant.

Why did you enter the food sector upon arriving in Ecuador in 1975?

When I arrived in the town of Quevedo, I was considering potential business opportunities. I started working in a restaurant with a Chinese partner, and I saw that Ecuadorean cuisine uses color for the palate, such as sauces, but I noticed that it was difficult to find soy sauces in Ecuador. We had to import soy sauce and other sauces from China. In the absence of choice, we often ended up with products that were expensive but of low quality. I then realized that we could have better sauces if we produced them ourselves. Therefore, I started making a new sauce condiment with my own recipes. This unique sauce that I make is my own recipe, unavailable anywhere else—including sauces imported from China. The sauce is now known in Ecuador as Oriental Chinese Sauce, but actually it is a sauce that is uniquely Ecuadorean, not just because it is only made here using local ingredients, it also has a different texture from other soy sauce as it has a higher yield. I started out selling my products to Chinese restaurants, but because they were few in number at the time, I began selling to stores and supermarkets as well. From there, we have continued growing over the past 39 years. Now, because of our sauce, Quevedo is known throughout Ecuador for its Chinese rice dish know as chaulafan,"and the main seasoning is prepared with Oriental Chinese Sauce. Now we have distribution throughout 10 offices with own sales force around Ecuador.

What role has Grupo öriental played in the economic development of Quevedo?

We are the main agro-industry in Quevedo. We were founded here, and buy our agricultural products locally, also employing local people, and exporting our products throughout Ecuador and around the world. We have two main plants in Ecuador: one for beverages, and another for sauces, noodles, and other flour-based products. In total, we employ around 450 people in Quevedo city.

What is the importance of having an Ecuadorean identity for Grupo Oriental?

We are an Ecuadorean brand born in Ecuador and sustained by Ecuadoreans. But what is more important for us is to emphasize that we use Ecuadorean raw materials, produced locally, to create quality Oriental food products using our expert knowledge. We want to show Ecuadoreans, Latin Americans, Europeans, and even Chinese people that Ecuadorean raw materials can be used to make healthy and delicious Oriental food products. Some of our sauces are actually being exported to China now, such as our chili sauce, which is made with Ecuadorean chili. Ecuador can produce chili sauce all year round because of our equatorial location. We see this as an opportunity to export. More than 10% of our products are exported currently within the region, but also to Europe and China.

What challenges have you faced growing as a food brand in Ecuador over the past 40 years?

You have to pursue your goals every day and adapt when needed by developing new technology and products. You also need to encourage your employees to love your company, to pursue growth, and to adapt to change and innovate. In Ecuador, we have seen considerable political change over the years, but for the past seven years we have enjoyed stability.

What role do you see for companies like Grupo Oriental to contribute to Ecuador's efforts to change the productive matrix?

The key word there is change: we all need to change. For Grupo Oriental, we saw the opportunity to change by working to integrate plantain flour into our products rather than traditional wheat flour. Everyone knows that Ecuador produces plantains in great volume, and that plantains boast many benefits both for people and for the economy. Historically, in Ecuador, plantain used to be the main source of food, and an important source of nutrition. We realized that we could take advantage of this. We are now developing an instant plantain flour product that can be used for soups, breads, any main dishes, and other foods. For us, we started from making Chinese sauce, to noodles, to spices, to healthy beverages, to healthy products.

What role can Grupo Oriental play in Ecuador's economy in the future?

We decided in 1975 to invest in Ecuador because we believe in the people and the possibilities of the country. We also believe in Ecuador's agricultural potential. I started a business here with nothing but a vision. Now our aim is to establish an international Ecuadorean brand. We want our brand to transmit the idea that with Oriental products, you can experience Asian flavors using Ecuador's natural agricultural wealth. We want to be recognized internationally as an Ecuadorean brand with Oriental values and culture.