Author: Derek Donkin
Updated: 31 May 2023
Avocado production in South Africa has traditionally been concentrated in the warm subtropical areas of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in the Northeast of the country between latitudes 22 °S and 25 °S. However, due to growing global demand and to produce year-round, production is expanding in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape provinces (up to 33 °S). Annual rainfall in most of these areas ranges from ±400 mm – >1000 mm p.a.
In years past, the South African avocado season extended from February to October, but with new plantings at higher elevations and more southerly latitudes harvesting now takes place from February in the to mid-January. Harvest volumes, however, are still highest from February to August, but will increase in the September to January period as new plantings in late regions come into full production.
The avocado industry in South Africa expanded steadily in from the early 1970s to 2003, with plantings of ±2,000 ha in 1970 increasing steadily until 2003. Expansion slowed from 2003 to 2008 with little growth taking place. However, since 2009, total plantings have increased due to a growing consumer demand for avocados. The 2023 avocado tree census indicates that the area under commercial avocado orchards stands around 19,500 ha with new plantings amounting to approximately 800 ha per annum.
Eighty percent of avocado trees produced in South African nurseries are the dark-skinned ‘Hass’ and ‘Hass’-type cultivars such as ‘Carmen’, ‘Gem’, Lamb-Hass’ and ‘Maluma’. Greenskinned cultivars such as ‘Fuerte, ‘Pinkerton’, ‘Ryan’ and ‘Reed’ make up the remaining 20% of nursery tree production.
High summer rainfall (> 1000 mm p.a. in many areas), and warm temperatures contribute to the incidence of root rot caused by Phytophthora cinnamomi. This disease is effectively controlled through phosphorous acid trunk injections integrated with practices that promote root health, such as the addition of compost and mulches. The majority of plantings since the early 1980s have been on Phytophthora– tolerant rootstocks such as ‘Duke 7’, Dusa® and ‘Bounty’. New rootstocks Zerala® and Leola® were introduced in 2020.
The estimated 3-year average annual production is 139 400 t, of which 45% is exported fresh, mainly to Europe and the United Kingdom. The remainder of the crop was consumed domestically and approximately 10% is processed (oil and purée).
Although the South African industry is export orientated, the South African market also plays a significant role with demand having grown considerably over the past few years.
2.1. THE SOUTH AFRICAN GROWERS’ ASSOCIATION
The South African Avocado Growers’ Association (SAAGA) has a voluntary membership that accounts for 95% of South African avocado exports. Activities of the association are funded by its grower members through levies on local and export sales. The aim of SAAGA is to improve the profitability and sustain the viability of growing avocados in South Africa. To this end, the association is involved in the following activities:
- Provision of technical information to its growers
- Funding of appropriate technical and market research
- Provision of relevant market information
- Local market development through generic promotion
- Gaining access to new markets and retaining existing markets
- Liaison with government and other bodies both locally and abroad.
Although SAAGA is funded by growers other role players, such as export companies, are also members.
2.2. QUALITY STANDARDS AND FOOD SAFETY
Quality standards for export are determined by SAAGA in association with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development of South Africa. These standards ensure that a good quality product – meeting the standards of the country of destination- is exported, and include factors such as fruit maturity, size, and blemish levels. Quality inspections are carried out by a parastatal organisation, the Perishable Products Export Control Board (PPECB) on a consignment basis prior shipping. The PPECB also ensures that standards for refrigerated road transport and refrigerated containers are met. In addition, growers that export must comply with Good Agricultural Practice standards that are laid down by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. This, however, is the minimum standard and more than 95% of the industry is GlobalGAP accredited. Other accreditations such as HACCP, BRC. LEAF, Fairtrade and Tesco Nature’s Choice are commonplace. The majority of South African avocado growers adhere to the requirements of the SIZA (www.siza.co.za) which is an ethical labour practice standard for the South African fruit industry.
The majority of avocados are exported by sea in refrigerated containers under controlled atmosphere (CA). 1-MCP (SmartFresh®) treatment is used as an alternative to CA for fruit destined for markets where avocados are not ripened prior to retail. Airfreight is expensive and is only viable when prices are abnormally high. Fruit exported by sea is packed and cooled in the production regions. It is either loaded directly into refrigerated trucks at the packhouse or into refrigerated containers for transport by road to the port. Avocados transported in refrigerated trucks are containerised in the port prior to shipping. Cape Town is the major export port and is approximately 1800 km from the production regions. The sea voyage from Cape Town to Europe takes 16 to 19 days. Because it takes fruit about 25 days from packing to reach the European retailer, strict control of all links in the cold chain is vital in order to maintain high standards of fruit quality.
SAAGA funded generic promotions of avocados in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2014. During this period, smaller campaigns were run in France, Sweden and Germany for periods of 2-3 years. Since 2016, SAAGA members have contributed to the funding of the World Avocado Organisation (WAO)(www.avocadofruitoflife.com) which runs generic avocado promotions of avocados in Europe. South Africa and Peru are currently the major contributors to the WAO.
SAAGA has funded generic promotion of avocados in the domestic market for over 25 years. Campaigns have been largely Public Relations based, educating consumers about the health aspects and culinary versatility of avocados. These campaigns have contributed to the steady growth in demand for avocados in South Africa.