South Korea export stars: Kimchi and premium fruit exports see record growth in 2021

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

South Korea’s kimchi and premium fruits including strawberries and grapes have experienced record growth numbers in 2021. ©Getty Images
South Korea’s kimchi and premium fruits including strawberries and grapes have experienced record growth numbers in 2021. ©Getty Images

Related tags South korea Exports

South Korea’s kimchi and premium fruits including strawberries and grapes have experienced record growth numbers in 2021 due to evolving post-COVID-19 consumer trends, according to recent government reports.

In its latest release of annual reports detailing food export achievements of the previous year, the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) highlighted that kimchi and premium fruits have achieved record growth in 2021.

“In particular, South Korean kimchi exports reached a record high of around US$159.9mn, [marking the] fifth consecutive year of growth since 2017,”​ said MAFRA Minister Kim Hyeon-soo via a public statement.

“[This is nearly double] of the export value seen back then – in 2017 kimchi exports were worth US$81mn, rising to US$98mn in 2018, then US$105mn in 2019, then US$145mn in 2020 and finally US$159.9mn last year.

“These achievements are a result of rising awareness of kimchi and its health benefits plus an increased global interest in health post-COVID-19, and is also due to the effects of the Hallyu Korean Wave [to raise this awareness].”

MAFRA also highlighted that kimchi supply chains to major markets such as the United States and Australia had been given priority even during the global logistics crisis faced last year, so as to maintain the quality and freshness of South Korea’s exported kimchi.

“There are more plans on the way to elevate South Korea’s status as the origin of kimchi, as well as the high quality and safety of our locally-produced kimchi,”​ said the ministry.

“We will also be looking into expanding the consumer base for kimchi by developing more processed food formats using this, such as kimchi sauces.”

Apart from kimchi, Korea’s premium fruits, particularly strawberries and grapes, also saw record growth in 2021 despite the pandemic, and this was attributed to specialized logistical efforts organized by the government.

Strawberries saw a 20% leap in export value from US$53.7mn in 2020 to US$64.5mn in 2021, whereas grapes saw a 24.1% leap from US$31.2mn in 2020 to US$38.7mn in 2021.

“Together, both of these premium fruits brought in US$103.1mn worth of export revenue for the country, exceeding the US$100mn mark for the category for the first time,”​ added Kim.

“The government nurtured these two fruits as premium export products and provided as much policy support as possible to support export competitiveness all along the supply chain, from production to storage, distribution, marketing, networking, selling and so on.

“For strawberries, we are also working with Korean Air to operate more dedicated aircrafts to Singapore and Hong Kong, two of the main major markets for these products to resolve logistics challenges [following the success seen last year].”

Premium strawberry exports to Singapore are primarily used in high-end foodservice such as luxury hotels as an ingredient for premium menu items, whereas premium grape exports are popular in overseas high-end department stores or retailers, particularly the well-known Shine Muscat variant.

Overall, the country’s agri-food product exports also reached a record high in 2021, surpassing the US$10bn mark for the first time to reach US$11.4bn in value.

Apart from kimchi and premium fruits as above, MAFRA also highlighted good growth numbers for items such as ginseng (16.3% growth), ramen (11.8% growth), beverages (18.2% growth), sauces (14.7% growth) and processed rice products (18.1% growth).

Ready-to-cook products on the rise

South Korea’s ready-to-cook (RTC) products in particular have been recognized to be on a growth curve, and this was also attributed to increased home-cooking by consumers all over the world, another trend accelerated by COVID-19.

“In 2020, the export value of RTC foods was US$34.9mn, which was an increase of 35.1% year-on-year and an astounding 323.1% from 2016,”​ said MAFRA in a separate report.

“In particular, we have seen that products such as instant cooked rice and tteokbokki (glutinous rice cakes) have seen massive export growths of 53.3% and 56.7% respectively.

“RTC foods are growing not only in terms of the export market but also its domestic market – [our numbers show] that the local market value in 2020 stood at KRW2.11tn (US$1.76bn), which is an 18.7% increase year-on-year and a 145.3% increase since 2016.

“As per our analysis, this steady growth all over the world is due to factors such as the increased demand for home-cooked meals due to COVID-19, and increase in the penetration rate of appliances such as air fryers in homes, and product quality improvements.”

Amongst local consumers, the most popular RTC items were identified to be instant rice (82.8% of consumers that participated in a MAFRA consumer survey purchased this), sauces such as curry, jjajang (fried black bean sauce) and donburi (rice bowl sauce) (77.4%), soups and stews (75.6%) and meal kits (63.6%).

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