As plantations expand and new varieties lengthen the season, South Africa’s avocado industry is targeting year-round supply and joint promotions in Europe with other country exporters in a bid to shore up demand for all. Produce Business UK speaks with Derek Donkin, CEO of Subtrop, the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association – which manages the affairs of the South African Avocado, Lychee, Macadamia and Mango Growers’ Associations – to determine what the UK can expect from the country’s avocado trade in the future
South Africa has just closed the door on another solid avocado season; exporting 52,000 tonnes worldwide, according to Donkin. Planting continues to grow at a pace, with at least an additional 500ha being developed in the last year alone to bring total production in the country to some 15,500ha.
New varieties lengthen season
“This trend is foreseen to continue for the next few years,” Donkin tells Produce Business UK. “We’re looking to extend the South African avocado season to become a year-round supplier. It’s already being done domestically in South Africa and over the years our export season has stretched later and later. Our domestic market is very strong in December, January and February, so it would be lucrative to be able to supply externally at that time too.”
The consumer’s favourite Hass is now the majority cultivar when it comes to South African avocado exports and the variety normally accounts for between 60% and 65% of total volume. Hass therefore dominates the majority of the new plantings taking place, but other dark-skinned cultivars like Meluma, Gem and Carmen are also playing a role in an effort to lengthen South Africa’s supply.
“Carmen is from South America, Meluma is a local South African selection and Gem is a Californian selection,” explains Donkin. “Gem is a late season variety, while Meluma is earlier. They look similar to Hass but they’re not the same. They ripen up as a dark fruit like Hass does and they have pebbly skin that’s thicker than green-skinned avocados. The flavour can be different but mainly it’s the time of year that they’re available that’s distinctive.”
Potential for market growth
As its supply builds, the UK will remain a market of “major importance” for South African avocado exports, even though the country is understandably exploring new opportunities in other destinations, particularly emerging consumer markets.
“We have good relationships with the UK and it’s been a steady market for us for many years,” Donkin notes. “I can’t see that changing drastically in the short- to medium-term. But we are obviously looking at growth in new markets and the rest of Europe. All over the world there’s a growing move towards consuming avocados and obviously supply is increasing from South Africa and also South and Central America.”
In general, Donkin believes there’s still a large consumption potential worldwide that’s “nowhere near being met”, which is good for country suppliers all round. “There is a continual growing awareness among consumers of the need to eat healthily, and that not all fats are bad for you,” he points out. “People have come to realise that avocados actually contain good fats.
“Plus they add variety to dishes that’s almost unlimited. Avocados not only add colour and look good in dishes, but they also add flavour and texture. That’s unique – there isn’t really a substitution for an avocado [in terms of versatility]. People often consider avocados to be savoury, but, in fact, they have a neutral flavour, so they go with sweet or savory dishes.”
South Africa’s annual avocado exports remain on an upward curve even considering the usual ‘on year’ of production, followed by an ‘off year’. This positive trend for exports is set to continue and Donkin is hopeful the export market will still grow to enable South Africa to send more volume to Europe as consumption and production increases.
Joint European promotions
When it comes to promoting the fruit, although South Africa’s own avocado activity in the UK remains on hold, the industry is busily working with its counterparts in Peru and Brazil (and any others suppliers that wish to come on board) to establish joint, year-round marketing activities for the European Union (EU), similar to the generic campaign that runs successfully in the US.
“The idea is to drive avocado consumption collectively,” reveals Donkin. “It will be a generic campaign; we won’t do anything related to the countries of origin. It will look at educating people about the health aspect of avocados and the various ways avocados can be used, which will benefit all suppliers.”
Donkin reveals it’s hoped that a joint exporter organisation will be in place early in the new year , with coordinated activities starting in either 2016 or 2017. “It depends on how well things progress,” he says. “All avocado suppliers to Europe are welcome to participate – the idea is that it’ll be a voluntary membership. We’d appreciate it if countries like Spain could participate and anyone else who would benefit from promoting avocados in the EU.”
Making South Africa stand out
While Donkin admits it’s difficult to differentiate a good avocado from the next, he claims where South Africa can garner a competitive edge in the UK is through its long-established relationships, which have been built on trust.
“We have a reputation for a consistently good quality supply that arrives on time, plus we deliver what the consumer wants at the agreed price,” he explains. “South Africa does have good reputation and the business relationships go back many years, which is important.”
The South African Avocado Growers Association (SAAGA) also remains committed to investing in safeguarding a quality offer. Much research is carried out on the production side and also in post-harvest to make sure the handling is optimal and suppliers know how to achieve it. “This has been a big investment in the past and it is still ongoing,” notes Donkin.
There is also a South African avocado representative based in Europe full-time who looks after quality issues in arriving shipments, and feeds back information to the exporters, as well as working with importers in Europe. The results of his monitoring are taken into account every year when the industry considers its priorities for research, in terms of whether there is anything new that should be investigated.
“South Africa has invested a lot in research and this will remain a focus,” Donkin predicts. “Just like any industry, quality is key in the fruit business.”
Environmental and ethical targets
At the same time, the South African avocado industry is working on a number of strategies that relate to global issues. On the production side, the sector is looking for ways to make its water usage more efficient since it is becoming more of a scarce resource.
“There is still a growing population and increasing urbanisation in South Africa,” points out Donkin. “We are doing research to determine exactly what the crops’ needs are to ensure they’re planted and set up to use exactly what they need. It’s part of the environmental approach we’re taking.”
On the ethical and trading side, a number of South African avocado growers are participating in the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA), which looks after fair labour practices to ensure they comply.
“South Africa already has very progressive labour legislations,” claims Donkin. “If you visit the SIZA website, you will find a rundown of the programmes, as well as the progress that has been made. It’s very important initiative.
“Ultimately, we’re aiming for all retailers to buy into this programme so there is no individual ethical trading programme for each retailer. It would be a South African initiative and less onerous in terms of accreditation for all the growers but it would still provide everything the retailers need in terms of the required ethical and labour practises.”
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