Mzansi’s organic fruit sector seems to have stayed in its infant shoes and it doesn’t seem like the industry will grow much in the near future. What exactly is stifling growth for these farmers?
For starters, the local market seems very small. South Africa has only a handful of organic food supermarkets and the low demand is especially stark when compared to Europe, where organic markets are spread far and wide, says TopFruit chief operating officer Hein Coetzee.
Then there’s the risk. In the absence of chemical pesticides, diseases and pests are an ever-present risk that need to be carefully managed. And a lack of industry knowledge, in turn, has a psychological effect on farmers who might want to dip their toes into organic farming. Coetzee believes that growers need success stories from pilot projects “so that they can believe that they can do it themselves; it must be shown that it can work”.
According to the World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2021 report, the area of organic farming in Africa has increased from 20 000 hectares in 1999 to more than 2 million hectares in 2019. However, only about 30 000 of these hectares are in South Africa.
Coetzee says most of this land is used for organic livestock production and of the 154 South African organic producers in 2019, very few are using the land to grow fruit.
What’s more is that temperate fruit (apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes, and strawberries) are currently being cultivated on just 14 hectares and very few farmers are interested in increasing production.
Export opportunities are rife
In 2019, organic agricultural imports to the European Union totalled 3.24 million tonnes. But organic temperate fruit accounted for a mere 4% of the imports.
Volkert Engelsman, CEO of organic supplier Eosta – one of Europe’s most innovative importers, packers and distributor of organically grown fresh produce – said in a recent press interview he has always been surprised by South Africa’s slow transition to organic production.
Eosta, based in the Netherlands, imports fruit from South Africa but is desperate for organic citrus and grapes from Mzansi’s producers. Engelsman said the prices that consumers are willing to paying for organic lemons from South Africa are stunning: up to four or five times the conventional price.
“I have always wondered why South Africa is not moving with such brilliant examples as Spier or Boschendal and other wine estates in the Western Cape. The proof of concept is everywhere,” he told FreshPlaza.
Engelsman added that organic production has experienced strong growth in Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Columbia – almost everywhere but in South Africa where, along with Namibia, Eosta currently has only 20 organic suppliers.
Can organic still grow?
Improving the current landscape for organic producers will require out-of-the box solutions and a collaborative effort from all role players, Coetzee says.
Even though it is currently difficult to gauge whether Mzansi’s organic food industry is growing in profitability, as there is no data available, he is convinced that the country’s organic fresh food producers need to be better supported.
This support needs to come from both government and industry role players if organic growers are to tap into the growing global demand for organic products. Most organic food producers in Europe are, for instance, subsidised. “Organic farmers need support from organisations that can share the risk with them since there are huge risks involved.”
Organised agriculture and industry body representatives should also take the lead in educating growers about organic production as well as the importance of farming sustainably and preserving nature. “Pilot projects must also be started and creating success stories is extremely important. In the past the failures were too evident.”
Although she is not a fruit producer but ventured into organic greens, Andile Matukane believes that everyone has a role to play in solving the challenges faced by organic producers. “I think we all have roles to play: government, farmers, the markets and the consumers.”
She says more awareness is needed on how organic food is prepare as she believes this could help consumers and buyers better understand organically grown foods.
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