How Edilberto Becerra made a fortune from spuds

A native of Colombia's capital, Bogotá, Edilberto Becerra made millions bringing premium potatoes to the tropical provinces. James McKeigue reports.

When Edilberto Becerra, 59, moved from Bogot, Colombia's highland capital, to the tropical town of Cali in the southwest, he was struck by one thing: potatoes. Or rather, the way they were sold. In Bogota, it was common to see washed, pre-packed potatoes in supermarkets. But in Cali, they were dumped on the shelves as though freshly dug up.

Convinced of the potential of bringing pre-packaged potatoes to Cali's consumers, he began negotiating buying and selling prices with farmers and supermarkets. The supermarkets liked the idea: pre-packaging "would bring in extra customers and... they could charge more". In 1981, once he was sure of the profit margin between buying the raw potatoes and selling his packaged ones, he borrowed the money to buy the machinery for his new firm, Procosecha (Proharvest). He began supplying supermarkets with washed, pre-packed gourmet potatoes, eventually winning a deal to supply French chain Carrefour's Colombian stores.

As time went on, Becerra boosted margins by creating new classifications, and selling different types of potatoes. "It was difficult because there wasn't a large local market for premium potatoes." But in 1994, a visit to Britain, and a food fair in Harrogate, inspired him. "They were showcasing new machines that could peel, slice and dice potatoes and then cook, pulp or freeze them." Becerra's supermarket customers were fussy, demanding perfect potatoes, and he had been selling the unwanted ones for "next to nothing". But this machine could turn the rejects into a premium product.

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Becerra brought the machines back to Colombia, using them to create pre-cooked frozen food from his waste potatoes to sell to Colombia's growing consumer class. But the Colombian recession of 1998 "destroyed the market for premium potatoes as people just wanted to save". With sales diving, Becerra had to look abroad. That meant investing even more money on certificates to satisfy international safety standards, and on visiting food fairs. But it paid off. At a fair in Tokyo, Becerra picked up some Japanese restaurants as clients, an achievement that was followed by gaining new customers from South Korea.

Becerra had also found a way to make his investment in the fancy food preparation equipment pay off. "I decided to start selling fruits as well." He set up a new company, Listo y Fresco (Ready and Fresh), and used the machinery to process exotic fruits, such as the Andean Blackberry and the Cape Gooseberry. These are either turned to pulp for food producers or restaurants, or frozen and sold to supermarkets.

Bercerra has also worked hard to tap demand for healthy exotic food from Western markets. Listo y Fresco now sends its products around the world. Last year group sales hit $5.5m and Becerra is now looking for partners in Europe and Asia. "It is very challenging because farmers increasingly want to use chemicals in their farming processes. For me to convince them not to I need to offer them the security of a large order and I will only be able to do that with international partners." Eventually, he plans to hand over the company to his 27-year-old daughter, Erika. "She is the future now."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.