Step aside, cannabis cultivation. There’s a new kid in town.
Plans are in place that could see South Africa becoming a significant player in the farming and export of saffron – by far the world’s most expensive spice.
For the local economy, this offers an invaluable source of foreign income from exports. It also assists in small-scale farmers, believes Bennie Engelbrecht, the founder and a director of Saffricon.
Furthermore, Engelbrecht says it offers commercial farmers an alternative source of income through diversification.
This is especially considering ever-changing weather patterns, market trends, and other variables that impact on their existing operations.
Their saffron farming operation perfected the art of cultivating saffron in local conditions for the last few years. Saffricon is based between Calvinia and Williston in the Northern Cape.
From Calvinia to the world
Saffricon has now reached the next stage of opening up opportunities in saffron to other prospective farmers.
This will be accomplished through an outgrower (contract grower) system based on three-year contracts with farmers.
“We supply the farmers with our saffron corms (bulbs). They then plant and cultivate it before harvesting the saffron threads (made up of the crimson-coloured stigmas and styles). The annual crop is sold back to us,” he says.
“Under favourable conditions, the corms multiply underground – on average, about three times per year.
“If one corm is planted at the beginning of year one, you will, on average, have three corms at the end of that year, nine at the end of year two, and 27 at the end of year three.”
The corms are sold back to Saffricon after year three, says Engelbrecht, promising that farmers’ take-up is therefore guaranteed.
“And they have a double-income potential: from the annual saffron harvest, as well as from the multiplied corms.”
Right time to invest
Saffricon has started marketing the outgrower system to prospective farmers and expect to have built sufficient corm stock by next year to start gaining momentum.
“This year, there is limited corm stock available and only a few hand-picked outgrowers will be supplied with the product. But by 2022, we should be able to help many more,” Engelbrecht says.
Meanwhile Corné Liebenberg, the marketing director of Laeveld Agrochem, says, as a partner of Saffricon, they foresee a huge potential for saffron farming in Mzansi.
He believes it also offers an ideal opportunity for the development of small-scale farmers. As such, it will assist in addressing the country’s high unemployment.
“The saffron venture offers many farmers that are currently under pressure an alternative option, whilst at the same time giving small-scale farmers an opportunity with solid prospects,” says Liebenberg.
“It is ideal for niche farming – a huge growth area for the South African economy and something that we are very passionate about. The initial capital outlay is manageable, relatively little space is required (250m² can accommodate 15 000 corms), and Saffricon will assist with training to bring new farmers up to speed.”
According to Liebenberg the outgrower (contract grower) system will uplift especially rural communities. It will give them a means to not only provide for their basic necessities, but also assist them to establish their own businesses with good growth possibilities.
Furthermore, the farmer does not have to wait very long for his return as is the case with many other crops.
The above-ground plant growth and eventual harvesting of the flowers happen relatively quickly after the corm is planted.
“The farming of saffron is also ideally suited to the South African climate – which, in the last few years, has gone through a harsh drought – as it requires much less water compared to many of the large traditional crops in South Africa,” adds Liebenberg.
Where South Africa’s most prevalent annual crops require roughly between 500-800mm of irrigation per season, saffron – a winter crop grown from March to October – needs between 250mm and 300mm per season.
Saffron is used to enhance flavour and aroma IN FOOD, but also has great use in the natural cosmetics and natural medicine industries.
Liebenberg continues: “Saffron can be grown in almost any environment, in conditions that are traditionally not ideally suited for most kinds of agriculture – such as the Northern Cape, which actually suits the cultivation of saffron.
New life for old soil
This allows for the production of profitable vegetation from unprofitable soil, he adds.
“Not only is the saffron plant frost-resistant, but it is also protected from adverse weather elements like hail for a large part of the year because of its corms being underground. The latter, and the fact that the corms are not edible, will hopefully also keep it out of the hands of petty criminals looking for food.”
In South Africa, saffron (sometimes referred to as “red gold”) retails for as much as R250/g (or R250 000/kg). The hefty price tag is attributed to the labour-intensive harvesting methods followed – from picking the flowers to removing the threads, all done by hand.
According to Engelbrecht, 150 000 flowers are needed for 1kg of saffron.
“And there are three threads per flower, which means 450 000 (dried) threads are needed for 1kg of saffron. The return per hectare, in year three when production peaks, can vary between 1kg to 5kg.”
Engelbrecht foresees solid growth prospects for the international saffron market, primarily because world demand far exceeds supply.
According to a report by Grand View Research, the global saffron market size was valued at about R13.4 billion in 2019, with expected compound annual growth of 7.3%, reaching about R22.4 billion in 2027.
Saffron is primarily used in the food industry as a seasoning to enhance flavour and aroma, but also has great use in the natural cosmetics and natural medicine industries, and as a dye in the textile industry.
Iran is the largest producer of saffron, accounting for about 90% of the world market, of which most is exported. Other countries where the product is grown include Kashmir, Afghanistan, Greece, Spain, Morocco, India, and now also South Africa.