SA’s fantastic blueberry growth story

In four years, blueberry production in SA grew sixfold and jobs in the sector grew eightfold. Its industry body, BerriesZA, aims to triple exports – but it needs access to the lucrative Chinese market.

Last year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa’s blueberry industry continued to expand its growing footprint on the global market. The South African berry industry has finally come of age.

Over the past five years, exports of blueberries have grown from 1 792 tons in 2015 to 15 636 tons in 2020. This impressive growth in production was accompanied by an eightfold growth in employment from 1 000 workers in 2014 to 8 000 in 2019.

Revenue from these exports amounted to R1.5-billion – an exponential increase from just R133-million in 2013.

Any industry that can grow its revenue more than tenfold in less than a decade deserves recognition and support. In an economy with a 40% unemployment rate, we desperately need fast-growing, labour-intensive industries.

The question then is what we can do to take full advantage of this vibrant new sector.

Revamped industry association

The sector relaunched the industry body formerly called the South African Berry Producers Association as BerriesZA in March 2021. As part of its new strategy, BerriesZA aims to strengthen the sector through greater cooperation throughout the value chain.

Whereas the SA Berry Producers Association was primarily focused on growers, BerriesZA is a more broadly representative body including platforms like the Joint Marketing Forum that allow for greater industry-wide cooperation.

Through these platforms, growers can gain valuable insights from the exporters who link them to the world about developments including changing trends in consumption, and which regions have growing demand.

The aim is ambitious but simple. If we can use these collaborative platforms effectively, South Africa can take on the blueberry powerhouses of the world, like Peru and Chile. In 2020, Peru overtook Chile as the world’s number one blueberry exporter, exporting well over 150 000 tons.

This is remarkable because in 2012 Peru was producing only 100 tons of blueberries. Production in Peru grew by 206% every year for seven years. The prospect of this level of growth should excite everyone.

While South Africa’s growth is dwarfed by Peru’s, their story prompts an obvious question: South Africa’s sixfold growth in production from 2015 to 2019 shows the country’s potential for exponential growth; so, if Peru can grow in the way that it has, why can’t we?

The fundamentals of South Africa’s berry industry are undeniably sound. The country produces some of the best quality, internationally sought-after berries; SA has shorter transit times to the lucrative markets in Europe and the East; and our climate is such that we can grow blueberries practically anywhere in the country. All the odds are in our favour; it is our job to maximise our advantage.

At BerriesZA our goal is to ensure that brand South Africa is top of mind when any importer or retailer anywhere in the world is shopping for the best berries around. BerriesZA is gearing up its international marketing campaign, powered by an entire industry value chain working in concert to take our berries to the globe.

But we cannot do it alone. We need the government to help us grow this sector and to create more jobs. Despite being some of the best fruit in the world, South African berries still do not have access to the fastest-growing berry markets in the world – in the Far East.

Looking to China

In this case, China is a standout giant with an ever-growing appetite for blueberries. This BRICS ally must be an important target for SA blueberry market access.

And there is good reason to prioritise our blues for the Chinese market. The South African agricultural sector was the only sector that continued to thrive throughout the pandemic, posting positive growth in an otherwise devastated economy.

This positive contribution of the agricultural sector to the Gross Domestic Product of South Africa could be significantly strengthened by the growth in exports of one of the world’s highest value fruits. The potential impact for the country is hard to overstate.

At the moment, by our most conservative estimates, the industry’s production is set to increase to 62 000 tons by 2024. This would mean tripling exports to 44 000 tons and creating more than 3 000 new jobs in just three years. With access to the Chinese market, South Africa could realistically gain 30% of the Chinese market, increasing projected employment growth from 14 000 by 2024 to 26 000.

But South African berries can only grow in the markets they can access. The industry is reaffirming its commitment to exponentially growing production and expanding the reach of our exports. The rewards are ripe for the picking.

Article by Justin Mudge, the Chairperson of BerriesZA. Views expressed are his own….