Berries to the fore

Global demand for berries is at an all-time high, with sales in the UK, South Africa’s main export market for berries, expected to reach the £1 billion (R12,9 billion) mark this year. Trevor McKenzie, chairperson
of the South African Berry Producers Association, spoke to Denene Erasmus about advancing the local berry industry.

Berries to the fore
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The local berry industry might be small compared to other local fruit industries (total exports currently amount to around 2 000t compared to over 200 000t for table grapes and about 300 000t for apples per year), but like the berries, the industry makes up in vibrancy what it lacks in size.

Blueberry and raspberry production has grown roughly tenfold in the last five years, spurred on by growing local consumption and massive growth in berry sales internationally. Industry leaders believe production will continue to increase for some years to come as global demand continues to surge.

Organising the industry
South Africa’s berry farmers recently established a new organisation that will represent their interests.The South African Berry Producers Association (SABPA) will co-ordinate the various activities of the industry and according to chairperson Trevor McKenzie, berry producers will now be able to work together to solve common challenges.Trevor, an experienced berry farmer, is the managing director of one of South Africa’s major berry companies, Eurafruit, based in Stellenbosch and handles about 90% of blueberry exports to the UK.

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“The berry industry experienced rapid growth in production during the past few years and berry exports grew to be worth a few hundred million rands. “But, the industry was quite fragmented so it was time to become more organised so that we could have a collective voice,” says Trevor. “From a grower’s point of view, the registration of chemicals for minor crops is one of our biggest challenges. Any industry needs reliable statistics and generating accurate production figures will be one of the main functions of the association.”

The association will also establish uniform grading regulations for berries produced in South Africa, facilitate research, exchange industry information between local and international berry groups, look at ways to promote sales and consumption of berries locally and internationally, and liaise with government about issues affecting the industry.

A growing industry
Five years ago, South Africa exported only a few hundred tons of berries every year (about 200t in 2008), but production increased at such a rapid pace over the past five years that the industry now exports more than 1 000t of both blueberries and raspberries, and 50t of blackberries per annum.

“It has only been during the last three years or so that we have seen exceptional growth in berry production, and the industry continues to grow at about 30% per year,” Trevor says. The association’s 16 members represent over 90% of the industry and according to Trevor the recent growth in production has not really been driven by a growing number of producers, but rather by existing producers expanding their operations and becoming more productive.

“We have seen a huge improvement in technical knowledge and better varieties being planted. Newer, more productive varieties have probably been the single biggest driving force behind the increase in production.”

Competitive quality
It is difficult to predict how much the industry will grow in the near future. “Who knows how big the industry will become, there are no physical constraints that will inhibit further growth. There are enough resources available. Future development will be determined by the growth in berry consumption internationally and in our ability to secure a place in the market and grow our market share,” he said.

South Africa exports about 80% of all berries produced and the most important markets are the UK and continental Europe. South Africa has the advantage of counter-cyclical seasonality to northern hemisphere production. Southern hemisphere berries are in demand, particularly during the northern hemisphere winter when their local supply is limited.

“We are a small producer in international terms. Our main competitors in blueberries are South American countries such as Chile which produces about 70 000t of blueberries per year and Argentina which produces about 14 000t. “But we are able to compete with these European countries because of our geographical proximity to the market.

“We also compete well in terms of quality. We don’t necessarily produce a better product, but we do produce a more consistent product because we have a smaller number of producers, thus making it easier for us to ensure that quality controls are in place throughout the industry,” says Trevor.

Growing the local market
While the main focus for the berry industry will remain on exports, the local market has also grown four- or fivefold over the past five years. This is in line with international trends which have seen the demand for berries grow at a faster rate than any other fruit, especially in the UK market. According to Kantar World Panel (a leading international provider of syndicated consumer panels and market research solutions), the market share of raspberries in the UK increased by 6% from 2009 to 2010 and during this time the market share for blueberries increased by 22%.

The total value of berry sales in the UK increased from around £170 million (R2,2 billion) per year in 2001 to £668 million (R8,6 billion) in 2010. Given the huge potential for growth in this sector, it should be no surprise then that the berry industry was singled out as one of the smaller, labour intensive industries with huge expansion and labour creation potential in the National Planning Commission’s development plan.

The plan estimates that roughly 80 000 jobs can be created in these industries which include berries, cherries, pecans, figs, rooibos tea and olives. Trevor agrees with this sentiment, but says that creating jobs will be the easy part. “Berry farming is extremely labour intensive so it is a given that expanding the industry will create jobs. What we need to do is retain markets and not compromise on the quality of the product we are producing.”

Trevor says the association has a role to play in this, by not only generating marketing opportunities for new farmers, but also by providing technical know-how and mentorship.

Contact Trevor McKenzie, SABPA chairperson, on 021 808 6641 or email [email protected]