South African blueberries: significant swing from air to sea freight this season
September 2, 2020

Harvesting has started across the country on South Africa’s largest blueberry crop yet, an estimated 24,000 tonnes of production, of which 17,000 tonnes will probably be exported.

Exports came to 12,282 tonnes last year, to give an idea of the tremendous growth within the blueberry industry, a real disruptor among the more established sectors of the South African fruit industry, says Justin Mudge, chairperson of Berries ZA.

”The industry is over 530 tonnes into the new season already. Here in the Western Cape it was a slower start than last year,” he says. “With Covid there is now probably less certainty in terms of growth projections. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still very bullish, but these are just projections which might need to be revisited after this season.“

There could be plantings planned for 2020/21 that might be delayed by Covid. The last raspberries of the 2019/20 season were disrupted during the initial weeks when planes stopped flying,

“The berry industry has been very resourceful and organised and pro-active about managing our exports so that we can deliver on the expectations of our customers in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Communicating different needs of blueberry industry
A Joint Marketing Forum has been set up to create a cooperative communication platform between stakeholders, including the establishment of a working group for the logistics sector, in order to communicate the unique needs of the blueberry industry.

“Blueberries don’t have the same kind of shelf life as citrus or apples, probably not even as good as table grapes. The urgency and the reactiveness we need from the port authorities is possibly different from other fruit. If you miss a sailing and you lose seven days of shelf life on a berry, it is critical,” he explains. “Every sailing is important for every product, obviously. It’s just about making them aware that berries are particularly sensitive.”

He refers to port delays during a significant week last year when berry exports were delayed, which meant that the following week markets received double the quantity.

“Consistency in the marketplace is always key. Disruptions erode confidence in South Africa’s ability to deliver quality product, on time.”

Big swing to sea freight this season
“Going forward there’s a lot of uncertainty around air freight and how we’ll fly the crop out, but at the same time the new genetics means that a lot more fruit is sea freightable, so there’s a real shift from air freight to sea freight this season. It’s part of the evolution of better berries, delivering them to the market in a more cost-effective manner.”

There would have been a major transition from air to sea freight this season, even if air freight rates hadn’t tremendously risen.

Year-to-date sea freight blueberry exports this year; air freight exports YTD week 34 stood at 124 tonnes (source: Berries ZA)

The difference between an air voyage that gets the berries on a Northern Hemisphere supermarket shelf within, at most, four days and a sea voyage of 21 days is vast, necessitating some big changes to blueberry packing this season.

“You want to make sure you’re packing for success.”

Opening of Chinese market “tragically slow”

“Within the Southern Hemisphere, Southern Africa is definitely best placed to supply Europe and the Middle East,” he says. “There are berries being produced in some volume in Zimbabwe and also in Namibia and Zambia.”

“Exports from South Africa to the Far East have been very low up to now. The returns have been in the UK and in Europe and at the time those were sufficient markets for the volumes that we had, but not anymore,” he says.

“We need to secure as many markets as we can so that we have options and to spread our risk.”

Up until now there was little left over after the equal 46% splits for both the UK and the EU, but he expects that the market shares of their traditional markets will gradually reduce in favour of new markets.

South African blueberries have access to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, whence there is definite growing interest, but not to China yet. The South African industry will shortly apply to government for South Korean access.

As for China, the opening of that market has been “tragically slow” for any fruit, Justin feels, and the list of commodities waiting for Chinese access has often been discussed within the South African fruit industry. Currently in process are pears, which are awaiting sign-off by the Chinese, with avocados waiting behind.

Intent to re-determine 3rd commodity on Chinese access list

It has recently been agreed that the first two positions would remain unchanged, but that through an as-yet undetermined protocol of prioritization, the third position will be re-determined.

Blueberries are claiming that third spot, but so are stone fruit (including cherries).

Fruits South Africa will come with a proposal to the broader industry on the methodology to determine this prioritization.

The berry organisation has undergone a transformative maturation in recent months, coming out from under the wing of Hortgro and changing its name from the more traditional South African Berry Producers’ Organisation to Berries ZA.

Fruits South Africa has submitted a proposal for new fruit types for them to join as an individual entity.

“We have the economics to back up our job creation potential, and we’d like the message to land loud and clear with the people who make decisions. Facilitating market access for berries will bring about growth in agriculture in South Africa and the concomitant job creation.”