Most of us are aware of the crisis gripping Venezuela. We’ve seen the tragic images of residents facing empty grocery store shelves and of mothers desperate to find medicine for their children. While media coverage of the crisis ebbs and flows, competing with other international stories, the situation in Venezuela becomes more dire each day.
A lack of basic resources, combined with suffocating economic circumstances, have forced scores of Venezuelans to leave their country – striking out to settle abroad in hopes of creating a better life for their families. This mass migration has created a strain on the resources of recipient countries and raised familiar but important questions about the bureaucratic barriers to migration. In addition to the alarming humanitarian implications, the Venezuelan migration will have a profound and lasting impact on cultural norms across the region – especially when it comes to diet and eating patterns.
By the Numbers
For decades, Venezuela’s economy has perched on a wobbly foundation. The most recent crisis, however, can be traced back to the early 2010’s when inflated social programs outpaced oil revenues. Foreign investments evaporated, and the domestic currency deteriorated rapidly, leading to soaring inflation. The situation was further exacerbated by rampant corruption, weak rule of law, and escalating violence. As a result of the economic and societal mismanagement, shortages of food and medicine became the norm and poverty spread throughout the country.
In the face of this dismal reality, many Venezuelans are choosing to look for opportunity elsewhere. The United Nations estimates that over 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated thus far. If the situation does not improve, and the political leadership of Venezuela does not change, the Organization of American States predicts that this number could reach 8 million people by next year. A migration of this size would earn the Venezuelan migration the unhappy title of the largest migration crisis in the world.
Venezuelan emigration has not been evenly distributed. The majority of migrants have stayed in Latin America, though nominal numbers have relocated to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Without question, Colombia has absorbed the most immigrants, with an estimated 1.3 million Venezuelans having relocated to the neighboring country since the crisis began. Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador have also become popular destinations.
As Venezuelans relocate to their new homes, they will bring their own customs and habits, which will gradually meld with those of the host country. This process happens in all facets of culture, but for our purposes we will specifically consider food and consumption patterns.
Unsurprisingly, traditional Venezuelan cuisine has been shaped by locally available crops and foodstuffs. The typical diet is heavy with rice, beans, particularly flavored meats, salty cheese, and products made with corn flour, such as the ubiquitous arepa. Fruits, especially plantains, also feature prominently. The Venezuelan diet has some important similarities to other countries in Latin America, and in particular to neighboring Colombia. However, the farther away one moves, the more pronounced the difference becomes between local and Venezuelan cuisine.
Demand for typically Venezuelan products is already rising in communities that have seen a large influx of migrants. For example, food retailers in Central America have reported an uptick of sales of ‘Paisa’ cheese – a specific brand of fresh, white cheese that is popular among Venezuelans. And ‘areparias’ are popping up in cities and towns across Latin America. In fact, the small city in Argentina where I live saw its first areparia open within the last year – undoubtedly coinciding with the wave of Venezuelans who have recently arrived.
These developing demand dynamics will ultimately be reflected in shifts in both domestic food manufacturing, and agricultural trade. Stakeholders all along the value chain have an opportunity now to adjust their products and services to reflect this evolving demographic. Time is of the essence and processors, traders, and retailers would be wise to position themselves early to capitalize upon these opportunities.
· Local manufacturers should consider adjusting their product lines to include products that most appeal to this new demographic. Consider adjustments to taste, texture, and presentation in order to capture this market.
· Traders should identify gaps in locally available products and design supply chains to bridge these gaps. Explore and develop alternative suppliers if current relationships cannot meet these new needs.
· Retailers should ensure that their product portfolio, shelf space allocation, and pricing strategies accurately reflect market demand. As the situation is shifting rapidly, I recommend reviewing the strategy frequently and adjusting as the community demographic changes.
In no uncertain terms, the situation befalling Venezuela is a tragedy. As millions of Venezuelans look for a better life beyond their own borders, they will inevitably alter the trajectory of the region. Venezuelan food preferences will be reflected to a greater degree across Latin America and beyond in the coming years. Without doubt, this evolution will create opportunities for participants in the food industry that are savvy enough to identify and capitalize on these trends. This is further proof that even in the face of tremendous hardship, opportunities can bloom.