With South Africa’s biggest crop of blueberries currently being harvested, producers are nervously watching the covid-19-related disruptions of ports and air travel with an eye to their peak export season from September to November.
Local farming of the berries, considered a “superfood” and in high demand as part of the healthy diet trend, has been one of the fastest growing horticulture industries over the past decade.
According to the South African Berry Producers Association a crop of 17 000 tonnes is expected this year, with most of that set for export.
Faced with airfreight rates that are as much as 70% higher than before covid-19 and a lack of flights from Cape Town airport, export companies have begun to collaborate in an effort to manage costs. Some are now sharing road transport from the Western Cape, where about 60% of the country’s blueberries are grown, to Gauteng in order to get the fresh fruit on cargo planes out of the country.
Blueberry production has grown hugely, both in terms of hectares planted and the gross value of production. In 2018 South Africa exported 8 000 tonnes, which earned R1.05 billion. By contrast, ten years earlier, the 2008 exports were only 634 tonnes, which brought R133 million into the country.
Many South African farmers have ventured into the industry because of the huge demand for blueberries in international markets and its ability to grow in a range of environments, says Elzette Schutte, manager of the South African Berry Producers Association (SABPA).
Blueberry producers creating jobs
The industry is estimated to have created more than 4000 jobs in the past five years, according to a SABPA report. For every hectare under production blueberry growers employ an average of 2.64% workers on farms, whilst another 0.22% jobs per hectare is created for those packing the fruits and those supervising or managing teams.
The Jobs Fund recently announced a R49 million investment to include previously disadvantaged farm workers into the mainstream blueberry market. The money will leverage almost R184 million in matched funding from partners for the project, including ABSA, Topfruit, Southern Cross Marketing and Management, Haygrove and the Atlantic Black project.
The funds will be used to “establish a 50-hectare blueberry orchard in the Western Cape, part-owned and 100% operated by previously disadvantaged South Africans. The blueberry operation will target the annual gap in the European berry market from October to February,” says the head of the Jobs Fund, Najwah Allie-Edries.
The project is expected to create 852 jobs, consisting of 70 permanent jobs, 570 seasonal and 212 short term jobs, and is supported by an employee equity scheme, says Allie-Edries.
Fastest growing berry crop
Many South African farmers are adding blueberries as a commodity in their baskets and there is an upsurge of farmers who are penetrating this field, says Schutte.
SABPA represents the interests of producers of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, and currently has 86 blueberry producers and seven associate members who grow and export blueberries internationally.
“Blueberries are probably the commodity that is growing the most. It’s a very popular commodity and it’s very healthy. People are moving towards healthier food – it’s actually what we call a ‘superfood’ because of the antioxidants it produces,” she says.
It also offers farmers a relatively quick return on their investment – Schutte says planters of blueberries can make their money back within three to four years. The plants also grow “anywhere”.
“You can grow it in a parking lot if you have soil. You and just need water and good plants. That is why people are starting to pick it up and starting to plant it a lot,” she says.
More blueberries for the local market
Blueberries are currently grown in eight out of the nine South African provinces, with the most coming from the Western Cape, Limpopo and North West.
Chirene Jelbert, CEO of Cfruit, a company that specialises in fresh, frozen and dried blueberries, says they are also expanding their local market for the fruit.
“We are finding that international flights are 50% to 70% more expensive than they were in the past and there’s no international flights from Cape Town. So we have to truck the fruit all the way to Johannesburg at an additional cost.
“We as a company have decided to collaborate with other exporters as far as possible to try and load containers to the benefit of the growers. So we can do more on sea freight and less on airfreight,” she says.
“I think there will definitely be fruit that is not suitable to export in a sea container that’s maybe already too soft. We will then not feel comfortable because the flying prices might not make sense and that will result in more fruit coming towards the local market” Jelbert says.