INTERVIEW-Brazil instant coffee exports could return to 2016 record

SAO PAULO, Feb 15 (Reuters) - A large 2018 harvest is expected to help the Brazilian instant coffee industry recover market share and boost exports in line with 2016 records, after a weak 2017, a leading industry executive told Reuters.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of instant coffee, as well as green coffee beans, but droughts in 2015 and 2016 hammered the robusta crop in Espírito Santo state, the nation's top producer of the variety most used in the manufacture of the product.

Brazil lost business to competitors in Asia, as prices soared and the country was not able to import its own supply of the commodity to improve domestic supply.

But the recovery expected for the coffee crop this year has sparked optimism for the industry, according to the president of the Brazilian Association for the Instant Coffee Industry (Abics), Pedro Guimaraes.

Exports "have all the potential to return to 2016 levels. Coffee will not be lacking, especially robusta," he told Reuters.

Brazilian exports of instant coffee totaled 3.46 million bags in 2017, down 10.6 percent from a record 3.87 million the prior year, bringing a halt to a string of growing shipments since 2014, according to data from Cecafé.

The industry's performance last year was the weakest since 2010, and sales slipped again in January this year, down 16.3 percent.

However, Guimarães attributed the slide to seasonal factors.

"A more solid recovery (in instant coffee exports) will occur after the harvest comes, from May onwards ... Importers need to be assured that there is supply," added Guimarães, who also serves as a director at Companhia Cacique de Café Solúvel.

Other players in Brazil's industry include Nestle which occupies the no. 1 spot for the domestic market, as well as Cafe Iguacu, which belongs to Japan's Marubeni.

According to the latest data from the National Supply Company (Conab), Brazil could produce up to 58.51 million bags, 44.55 million of arabica and 13.96 million of conilon this year, representing a 30 percent jump over 2017.

However, recouping market share will not come easily, according to Guimares, who told Reuters in late 2017 that it would take time to win back importers who have abandoned Brazil for other suppliers.

Guimaraes said he did not see a need to import green coffee beans to Brazil, given expectations for a record harvest.

He predicted stable consumption of instant coffee domestically this year, but saw international growth of 3 percent, "mainly in Southeast Asia." (Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)