Kumato: a new tomato for SA

Peter Bakker has mastered the art of profiting from innovative crops, but his latest innovation is yet to be accepted by consumers. This oddly brown, but sugary-sweet Dutch tomato is a bit pricy but definitely worthwhile. Robyn Joubert reports.
Issue date 16 November 2007

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New food varieties are big business. Woolworth’s Discoveries range and Pick ‘n Pay’s Innovations line reflect the competition among supermarkets to be first to deliver new foods to a hungry public. Produced for Peter’s Simply Salads label on the 9ha Renee farm in Barberton, this dark reddish-brown tomato hybrid is grown from seed imported from a Dutch company. “The Kumato is a strictly-controlled brand product,” says Peter. “We’re SA’s sole grower and distributor. Initially, the seed company refused my request for seed as it didn’t think SA was a suitable market. After about two years we convinced them SA’s retail market was as developed as the UK’s.”

Kumato packaging is standardised worldwide, but Peter was permitted to change the languages on the label to English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, and make the punnet smaller to suit the size of locally-produced Kumato. After a year of production under greenhouse, Peter is harvesting 3t to 4t per week in total. “I’m in love with the Kumato, but then I love things that are different,” he says. “It’s exceptional to create a standard-size tomato that’s almost as sweet as a cherry tomato and has an excellent balance between acid and sugar.” Peter says the Kumato scores six to seven on the Brix meter, as compared to 3,5 Brix for ordinary tomatoes and seven to eight Brix for cherry tomatoes. “The smaller you go, the higher the Brix,” he explains. “It’s easier to breed more sugars into a tomato when it’s smaller, so the Kumato is really unique.” Launching a food innovation T he Kumato is sold at selected Pick ‘n Pays and Spars but sales have yet to take off. “I’m used to the slow uptake of new products but a bit disappointed about how set people are in their ways. If something doesn’t look “right”, the public won’t buy it.

But once people overcome the unusual colour and taste the Kumato, they’ll be back for more. It tastes the way tomatoes used to taste, before we started breeding for a tomato that travels well and has a long shelf life.” S hirley Hodge, Pick ‘n Pay product developer for fruit and vegetables, says Pick ‘n Pay has big plans to promote the Kumato. “We’re changing our campaigns to focus on newness, quality, freshness, taste and excitement,” she says. “People like new varieties, tastes and flavours, but because of Kumato’s colour, customers are scared it’s genetically modified.” The public might be hesitant, but the Kumato clinched the Innovation Award at the Eat In Rand Merchant Bank Private Bank Fresh Produce Awards earlier this year, and is finding favour with adventurous chefs. It comes with a hefty price tag, however. A pack of four retails for about R8. “Ordinary tomato seeds cost about 50c each but Kumato seeds cost R5,40 each, plus we pay a royalty to the seed company,” says Peter.

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The Kumato likes its roots in a high salt environment which requires more fertiliser, adding to the expense. “Anything that thrives on salt produces less fruit, but what we lose in production, we gain in taste. We grow it on a cherry tomato feeding regime and produce 20% less than normal tomatoes.” Peter says paying royalties is an entirely new concept. “It hasn’t been done in SA before, but the seed companies like to do it with anything that’s a speciality. In the last year or two, we’ve grafted the Kumato onto rootstock and gained an enormous amount of vigour. Instead of planting 30 000 plants per hectare, I can plant 15 000 plants per hectare and let each develop two stems, halving my feed and seedling costs. This practice worries the seed companies, so soon they’ll start charging SA farmers per hectare, but at the moment they just charge us more per seed.” Innovating profitably Peter is constantly on the lookout for food innovations. “We always have a house full of trials. We’ve introduced a few very successful lines to retailers, like the punnet of tricolour peppers, and the Pink Bella, a type of cherry tomato.

Sweet Bite Peppers have been on Pick ‘n Pay and Spar shelves for about a year now and sales are growing nicely.” Peter will soon send to market a trial run of Pepper Parade, a red, yellow and orange pepper in a flow-wrapped sleeve. “They’re half the size of standard peppers and sweet. As soon as we’re confident the varieties can do the kilos we’ll approach the retailers.” Peter has learnt this circumspect approach the hard way. While he has enjoyed considerable success with some of his innovations, more than 30% of new food varieties fail commercially. “Innovations cost a lot of money. In the past we would run with a new variety and only find out in the midst of commercial production that it didn’t produce enough kilos. Now we first do thorough trials and sometimes even small commercial plantings to find out whether a crop produces under all weather conditions and is commercially feasible. “There is nothing worse than launching a product to retailers and finding you can’t make money on it.” Even when you’re onto a sure winner, Peter says a farmer can’t survive on innovations alone. “You must have your bankable lines that have good sales and tonnage per hectare, like the 1kg bags of normal red tomatoes. These don’t involve any more developmental work. All you’re trying to do is get better at growing them.” Contact Peter Bakker on (013) 712 1027. |fw