ANDRÉS CUKA

Ecuador 2020 | AGRICULTURE | INTERVIEW

With 19 years of experience in the tuna industry, Marbelize is capitalizing on its innovative formats and flavors to attract new customers and retain existing ones.

Andrés Cuka
BIOGRAPHY

Andrés Cuka studied agricultural business at the University of Florida and has a master's degree in business administration with a minor in international economics from Politecnico di Milano. He joined the Cuka Economic Group in 2012 as operations manager of Marbelize S.A, focusing on productivity and production yield and introducing technologies to improve quality control. In 2018, he became General Manager of Marbelize, one of the top-six tuna processing and export companies in Ecuador. He is also CEO of Finca los Nonnos, which focuses on pork farming, processing, and distribution. In addition, he sits on the board of directors of the Cuka Economic Group.

Ecuador is the world's second-largest exporter of tuna. What is Marbelize's positioning in this strategic industry?

Marbelize's core business is the export of tuna. We export 70% of our production to Europe, 26% to the Americas, and the remaining 4% is sold in Ecuador. We focus on Europe, because it has the highest consumption of tuna per capita. The tuna industry went through various crises, but the most difficult one was when prices fell from USD2,200 per ton to USD950. We had to reinvent ourselves, which took us out of our comfort zone and pushed us to be more competitive by identifying new consumer needs and focusing on reducing operating cost, but never affecting our two main drivers, which are quality and consumer satisfaction. With this in mind, Marbelize was able to achieve USD100 million in sales and 40,000 tons of production in 2019 compared to USD84 million and 30,000 tons in 2018. Our goal for 2020 is to process 45,000 tons of tuna. We will focus on de-commoditizing our product and bringing more added value by offering a wide variety of items following each specific client preferences, as well as strengthening our commitment to maintain our leadership in the American continent as the biggest producer of catering pouch pack sizes. We were the first Ecuadorian exporter to introduce tuna in glass jars. Today, we offer innovative formats, such as ready-to-eat tuna with spices, tuna salad with different ingredients, frozen breaded olives with stuffed tuna, and premium fillets with natural flavors.

Ecuador and the US have restarted talks on a potential trade deal. What are the prospects for tuna exports to this vast market, and what other markets might look promising for the company?

The US is in the spotlight, because apart from its large population, it is a market that is always looking for new things to try. Marbelize is a good partner, because it follows best practices and processes as part of its standard business. These can be used for marketing in the US, as consumers would respond well to a dolphin-safe label or a kosher certificate. It is an opportunity for producers to connect with consumers and strengthen this type of practice, and these methods are coming into place not only for tuna, but for the whole food industry. One of our main goal is to identify new consumer needs by having a R&D department where new products, flavors or packaging take place. We also have our eyes on the Middle East as a new prospect for tuna exports.

The company is also diversifying its products by offering different proteins. What are the plans for adding this new product line?

Our 19 years of experience in the tuna industry lead us to identify new business opportunities, such as creating different protein-based products such as shrimp, beef, pork, and chicken. As a result, we started a technified pork farm company with a meat and sausage process line and a high-end supermarket called Merkato. We offer top quality and value-added products in order to be prepared to seek an opportunity in the international market in the future. For now, one of our biggest challenge is to combat the informal pork breeding market, which comprises 70% of our country production. We will concentrate on leading with responsibility and educating consumers on our sustainable product that complies with all the sanitary regulations.

Companies in the agricultural sector in Ecuador need to add value to their exports. How has Marbelize achieved this?

Marbelize invests a percentage of its total revenue into innovation and development every year. We are constantly testing new products and formats, especially in ready-to-eat options. For example, Marbelize is offering 80g tuna pouches to be sold at strategically selected places such as gyms, supermarkets, and sports stores. We are working to promote this product for athletes, because it is one of the healthiest proteins.