Despite being highly lucrative, South Africa’s papaya industry is experiencing an alarming decline in both size and demand. This is according to expert Lean van Schalkwyk, who is also the packhouse manager of Neofresh, the country’s biggest papaya grower.
Although papayas are loved by many in Mzansi, it remains a niche product. Currently, the fruit is in its peak production period and sold predominantly on the local market. In fact, very few producers are currently exporting papayas.
Duncan Masiwa: Very few farmers consider growing papayas. Why is this, and how has the industry developed over the last five years or so?
Lean van Schalkwyk: In general, I would say that the industry is shrinking in size and the demand is less. That might be due to the fact that papaya is a niche crop. The economic conditions in South Africa over the past few years were definitely very tough. Costs are increasing for packaging and logistical labour, but the selling price for papayas hasn’t moved much in the past five years.
That doesn’t sound good….
Papayas are a small industry and everybody working in it, knows one another. If you are farming with papayas for the municipal market only, I don’t foresee a great future for your business model. At least on a retail level, it is much more structured and prices as well as volumes fluctuate a little bit less.
What’s your take on the current market for papayas?
If you look at the municipal market level, for instance the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market… When the market reaches a level of 10 000 cartons it is flooded and papaya prices plummet, sometimes not even covering your logistical and packaging costs.
Has the interest in papayas as an agricultural crop increased over the years?
No, I think the area planted has actually decreased the past few years.
What are some of the major challenges faced by the papaya industry?
The labour rate [constantly] increases. Papaya is extremely labour intensive with no machines able to harvest or pack the product. It is all done by hand.
Also, due to the nature of the fruit, you always sit with a 15% to 20% waste factor that you can sell only to juice factories or hawkers. On top of that, papayas suffer many pests and diseases.
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