South Africa’s promising blueberry industry is facing significant challenges due to weather, port disruptions, and load shedding while neighboring countries like Zimbabwe are rapidly expanding their blueberry production.
A blueberry farmer from Wellington, in the Western Cape, Nosindiso Pepu, said that delays in the ports are negatively impacting the industry because the inefficiencies are causing local producers to have their produce rejected because of late arrival and the quality of the fruit.
‘Ports are letting us down’
“The delay in shipments causes a drastic reduction in fruit quality which leads to increased rejections from clients which leads to enormous financial loss,” she said.
On top of that, Pepu explained that load shedding increases input production costs namely the cost of diesel, which is needed to power generators that are used for cold storage of the fruit.
She said if a farmer does not have a backup generator, the quality can be severely affected because fruit picked and not immediately cooled down to temperature will have a lot of quality issues.
According to Pepu, the quality of the production is extremely important when it comes to the international market and with continuous power cuts their produce are seen as having low durofel (firmness), poor shelf life, and prone to mould. This means it cannot be sold as it will not meet the quality standards.
“Even if a farmer decides not to pick when there is load shedding, they still lose because the quality of blueberries still declines drastically when the berries are ripe already even when not picked.
“Both these influence job creation and unemployment, in my opinion, because most of the companies or farms are downsizing and some are closing,” she said.
Good season despite extreme weather
Meanwhile, Berries ZA manager Elzette Schutte said different weather patterns across the country have impacted the production of the fruit.
“In the Western Cape, we had flood issues and our farmers lost a lot of produce in the flood waters ,but we have started harvesting in the Western Cape and farmers are not anticipating a great decrease in volumes. But, the weather did affect the season.”
She said as the country is still in the middle of the blueberry season – which is from June to January – indicators are that it was fairly a good season so far.
Fruit exporter and managing director at Riyp Uzair Essack said not all is lost even if the industry is facing major challenges. He believes the country will continue having good quality because of good produce from the Western Cape.
Navigating several challenges
“The market has been empty in Europe and the Middle East because Peru has their issues. This means that we had higher prices for a longer time and an increase in demand. I have seen more blueberries this season than I have ever seen,” he said.
He explained that the exports are doing well because the producers want to enter the market quickly and most of the produce is transported through airfreight, which has its challenges like temperature that can cause a few quality issues. Still, overall it has been doing very well.
“All vessels in other commodities have been delayed so I had citrus from Cape Town going to the Middle East, and it was meant to take three weeks, but it took six weeks,” he said.
For Essack, load shedding is a continuous challenge that blueberry farmers have to work around.
“Most blueberry growers have the infrastructure to manage the load shedding. They have had to do that because if you break the cold chain with blueberries as soon as you harvest, you are looking for trouble.
“But most growers must keep their blueberries at zero degrees throughout the packing process to ensure good quality. The extra infrastructure costs and diesel is expensive in production,” he said.
Neighbours are export-driven
Hamond Motsi, a preparatory PhD scholar at the faculty of agrisciences at Stellenbosch University, said the reason why the blueberry industry is flourishing in Zimbabwe is because it is mainly produced for exports.
“In Zimbabwe, in the area I live in, the production is completely for the international market, so one of the major drivers of blueberry production in Zimbabwe is the European Union market exports.
“The type of soil in Zimbabwe is also very favourable to the blueberry production and also the issue of climate because the fruit does well in warm conditions which Zimbabwe has a lot of,” he said.
Motsi said the local market in Zimbabwe is not good because of the state of the economy, which is why farmers in the country solely rely on exports.
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