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Fred Meintjes

BY FRED MEINTJES

Southern Africa's blueberry promise

Logistical challenges face berry exporters from Southern Africa as production grows across region

Southern Africa's blueberry promise

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The production of blueberries in Southern Africa continues to grow, with South African producers in the north, and in neighbouring countries, expanding production. The business will however for some time be dominated by production in the Western Cape.

Recent reports indicate that areas of production in Zambia and northern Namibia are increasing, while Limpopo in the north of South Africa provides a boost to early production.

Zambia has recently been granted access to China, the first Southern African nation to achieve this. This is much to the envy of South African growers who have been looking at expansion in the east for its growing production.

Zambian production and that of Namibia, along with the northern areas of South Africa, ripens from March and April onwards, around five months earlier than the harvesting in the Western Cape, which has up to now seen the bulk of South African production.

Early South African production is mainly sold on the local market, with some air exports to the Middle East and elsewhere in the east. Exports to Europe only really get underway from August once European supplies start to decline.

This year is, however, not a normal year and limited airfreight has resulted in most exporters to Europe focusing their activities firmly on exports by sea.

Although South Africa will be reducing its restrictions on air travel from October, it is unlikely that there will immediately be a dramatic increase in available airfreight.

Cape producers, at this stage, have to transport their fruit over more than 1,600 kms to Johannesburg where airfreight space is also limited.

Soon they will have to compete for space with the early summer stonefruit from the north. Experts say the long term future for the fast expanding berry business lies firmly in the field of sea exports.

A lower early crop in the north of South Africa, some 5-10 per cent less than expected, meant that there was less pressure on both airfreight and the local market.

While production of blueberries in Zambia is still relatively small, and that at Rundu in the Kavango-East Region of northern Namibia is only in its second year, growers and exporters from both countries have their own challenges.

Zambia is a landlocked country and it seems as if its only option to reach export markets would be via South African ports. For Zambia this would mean road transport from the growing region near Lusaka via Zimbabwe and across South Africa to either Durban or Cape Town.

They may also, over time, move their fruit via northern Botswana and across the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to the port of Walvis Bay where there will be feeder container services available.

Observers have said that Zambia does not have a protocol for entering the lucrative South African market, leaving exports as the only option.

While it has received access to China, it is not clear whether all the hurdles in terms of protocols have been cleared yet. This could take some time.

South African sources, who believe it is vital for their fast developing business to get access to China, are under no illusions that it will be a quick fix. “Judging from the experience of other South Africa industries, this could easily take six to seven years before we even get close to access.”

With Polish blueberries now having been more or less cleared in Europe, South African exporters are focusing on their sea shipments to fill the gap on supermarket shelves.

On the other hand, Polish blueberries, which were seen on South African produce shelves in the past during June, July and August, are now totally absent.

It reflects fast changing production trends, which are also seen in the avocado business, enabling South Africa to become self-sufficient in both products.

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