Good news for consumers but not for farmers as South Africa’s avocado industry re-routes two million extra cartons of the fruit on to the domestic market as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic on export predictions.
For those who love smashed avocado on toast, or a touch of guacamole on their nachos, now is the time to pop down to the fruit and veg store as more than two million cartons of the fruit destined for export head for the domestic market.
This massive drop in export trade as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic might be good news for domestic consumers but not for farmers, who will have to re-assess their earnings: at least two thirds of the local crop is destined for overseas markets in a normal year.
Earlier this year – when the green “superfood” was out of season – consumers were paying upwards of R50 for two avocados, with prices for “ready to eat” fruit now at about R30 for two, giving an indication of the high demand despite annual harvesting already in full swing and the import excess taken up by domestic buyers.
But consumers could expect further downward price pressure as harvesting hits its peak.
CEO of the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association Derek Donkin said the original export predictions were set at 18 million cartons, but since the onset of the pandemic the industry had re-adjusted its forecast to R16 million cartons for the year.
“The closure of the hospitality sectors, restaurants and hotels has affected our exports as well as sales here in South Africa. While the excess will be taken up in the domestic market, that does, however, put pressures on the price,” Donkin said.
He added that the downward price pressure was affecting the green-skinned varieties, with some retailers selling a 4kg box of avocadoes on special recently for about R60.
The South African avocado harvesting season runs from February to November, with most of the fruit harvested between March and September.
Describing the trajectory of South Africa’s industry as a “long-term growth path”, particularly as it looks to further international trade with Japan, India and the United States, Donkin said due to growing global demand and to position the industry to produce the fruit year round, production was expanding in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Eastern and Western Cape.
Currently the United States is the biggest importer of avocados globally, importing about one million tons of avos in 2018.
Reportedly, South Africa’s industry plans to host inspectors from Japan once the lockdown has eased and international travel has returned to normal, with its sights also set on gaining access to the Chinese market in the future.
Donkin said South Africa’s industry had enjoyed good harvests and prices for at least five years, with growth expected to continue into the future as consumers worldwide are drawn to healthier eating habits.
South Africa’s avocado production has grown exponentially with about 2 000ha under orchards in 1970 to 19 000ha today. Year-on-year new plantings are estimated at about 1 500ha a year, with growers having to wait for anything up to two years for young trees from certified nurseries due to the demand, he said.
Prior to the ramping up of nursery production, Donkin said new growers could wait up to six years for young trees.
“It takes up to 18 months to grow an avocado tree from seed. When demand suddenly ramped up about five years ago there weren’t that many nurseries. But new nurseries have opened up and we are now in a good position, although the wait is still about two years.”
While accurate figures were not available of the diversification of sugarcane farmers to crops such as avocados, Donkin said there was growth in membership of the South African Avocado Growers’ Association from farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and in particular in the Ixopo area, where they were exiting the dairy industry in preference for avocado farming.
In 2018, South Africa’s avocado crop was estimated at 170 000 tons, of which about 86 000 tons were exported mainly to Europe and to the UK. The remainder of the crop was sold on to the domestic market, with about 10% processed to oil and purée.
The Hass avocado accounts for 80% of the total area planted, while the Fuerte, Pinkerton, Ryan, Edranol and Reed varieties make up the remaining 20%.
The Hass is harvested in Limpopo Province from February to May and in KwaZulu-Natal, from February to October. The other varieties are harvested mainly between March and September.
While archaeologists in Peru found domesticated avocado seeds buried with Incan mummies dating back as far as 750BC, South Africa’s first avocado trees were planted in the 1920s in the Durban area by Harry Ludman with seedlings from the West Indies.
Reportedly the fruit was of a poor quality and “attracted little commercial attention”.
In the 1930s citrus farmers in the northern reaches of the country started replacing their dying citrus trees – due to a greening disease – with avocado trees.
However, it was only in the mid-60s that farmers started getting organised by setting up an Avocado Growers’ Export Coordinating Committee, which changed to the Transvaal Avocado Growers’ Association in 1969. The organisation continued as such until August 1971when the South African Avocado Growers’ Association was formed.
The first research committee was established in 1976.
While some attribute the avo’s popularity with consumers to the rejuvenated popularity of the Banting or high-fat low carb diet promoted by South Africa’s Professor Tim Noakes, and the increasing research worldwide on the impact of sugar on health, the Central American Indian worshipped the fruit’s ability to increase vitality and general well-being as long ago as 500BC.
The South African Avocado Growers’ Association says it is believed these ancient civilisations not only revered the fruit for its nutritional value but also believed it to be an aphrodisiac, due to its suggestive shape. “The name avocado actually comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, meaning testicle.”
Regardless, avocados have a unique nutritional profile as they contain lots of fibre and are rich in vitamins and minerals like B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, copper, vitamin E and vitamin C. They also contain very little sugar.