Blueberries have been in production for over a hundred years in North America. During the past decade, blueberry production has become one of the fastest growing fruit commodities in South Africa. This has been made possible by the availability of new blueberry varieties that do not require the high chill climatic conditions that older varieties required for production. Prior to this, South Africa only had access to the high cold demand varieties that were grown in the colder climates of North America, Canada and Europe, which were not suitable for local production.
A few years ago, Australia and other warmer countries bought genetics from the University of Georgia, University of Florida and Michigan State. They experimented with the genetics and concluded that blueberries can also be grown in warmer climates. This discovery led to the development of a new global industry, created a global demand for these new blueberry varieties, and as blueberry production is highly labour-intensive, this has development has also created many, many new job opportunities, both globally and in South Africa.
The robust nature of the improved blueberry genetics have also improved their storage capacity, making it possible to export the berries by sea freight instead of only by air freight, as was previously the case. As South Africa provides counter season production to the Northern Hemisphere, our berries are in demand in the lucrative Northern Hemisphere markets at times when there is no Northern Hemisphere supply.
The older varieties like Ventura, Biloxi and Legacy are found in Peru, where 10 000 hectares of blueberries are already planted. South Africa has a distinct competitive advantage over Peru as from the start of this new industry, South African producers invested in excellent new varieties of the highest quality. These new generation blueberries are known for their bigger size, crispy texture and delicious taste compared to smaller, more astringent older varieties. Despite the large blueberry productions from Chile and Peru, South Africa has the advantage of a more diverse variety of blueberry plant genetics.
During 2016, the South African berry industry officially established its industry body called BerriesZA. This organisation is funded by its members and deals with common industry issues on their behalf. Justin Mudge is the current chairman of BerriesZA and Elzette Schutte is BerriesZA’s Operational Manager. The South African local market is not regulated, which means anyone can place their product on the market and there is little regulation of marketing requirements on the packaging.
Prokon SA is currently busy with a study for BerriesZA to determine the quality of blueberries on the municipal markets in Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town as well as in the supermarket retail sector. This will give BerriesZA a better idea about what is happening in the local market in terms of the quality of the blueberries.
The export market destinations of BerriesZA member growers are the more traditional international markets like the UK and Europe, which makes up for 92% of BerriesZA fruit exports. South African blueberry producers also export to the Middle East and some Far East countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. While the South African berry industry is working towards market access to China and South-Korea, this is a complex process and can take several years to complete successfully. The industry is optimistic that they will achieve success within the next 10 years.
BerriesZA member growers are planning to increase their plantings to 5000 hectares of blueberries by 2024/2025 and to export approximately 65000 tons of blueberries to their European and UK markets. It is expected that this expansion will create 5000 new job opportunities by 2024, which will be a significant boost to South Africa’s economy.
“There will be big opportunities for South Africa when the Chinese and South Korean markets open. This will mean many new hectares of blueberries will be planted. Within the fresh produce sector, the blueberry industry creates the most jobs per hectare. This is an industry that can make a significant difference in rural communities through creating new job opportunities. Young people can find sustainable employment on blueberry farms. I am really excited about what lies ahead and the opportunities this industry can provide for our country.” Elzette Schutte, BerriesZA manager.