Listen to the Lucentlands Podcast with Roelof du Toit, South African Kiwi Producers NPC board member and Technical Manager at the Kiwi Connection about the current status of the South African Kiwifruit industry.
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GLOBAL KIWI DEMAND DRIVES LOCAL GROWTH
New genetic material, growing global demand, and specific export market supply gaps have resulted in significant growth in the South African kiwifruit industry during the past decade and the establishment in 2019 of a new grower body, South African Kiwi Growers NPC.
Although South Africa has been producing kiwifruit for around 40 years, a significant increase in the international demand for gold kiwifruit has boosted growth in the South African kiwifruit industry. Due to the introduction of improved genetic material and South Africa’s latitude and warmer climate, it is possible to produce and export gold kiwifruit, and red kiwifruit to some extent, between two and 12 weeks before the start of the New Zealand harvest. Thus, when the gold and red kiwifruit produced in South Africa reach markets in the Northern Hemisphere, during March and early April, the fruit faces no competition in the market and growers generally receive excellent prices for their product. At present, there are less than 500 acres of kiwifruit planted in South Africa, but this number is expanding rapidly.
Currently, the primary markets for South African kiwi fruit are the European Union, the UK, the Middle East, the Far East, and Canada. However, the hope is to gain access to higher volume and higher-paying markets like the US, as well as Japan, and China. Succeeding in obtaining market access to new markets is vital for this industry to grow.
The benefit of the new gold and red kiwifruit varieties is that production requires fewer chilling units (cold climate conditions) than the older green varieties, and today these new varieties are produced in warmer regions of South Africa, where kiwis could not be grown previously. The new varieties also produce a better yield, and bigger and considerably sweeter fruit than the older varieties. Sugar levels are measured in brix, and while green kiwifruit is typically ripe at 10 to 14 brix, gold kiwifruit can achieve brix levels of 19 to 20 by the time it is consumed.
A further benefit to marketing this product is that kiwifruit can be stored in controlled atmosphere conditions for long periods. The South African kiwifruit industry is currently undertaking storage trials to optimize this process.
Kiwifruit consumer benefits
Kiwifruit is included in the group of foods referred to as superfoods due to its nutritional qualities. The fruit contains higher levels of Vitamin C than citrus fruit and a host of other vitamins and minerals. The small seeds in the fruit are excellent for gut health, as they provide good roughage for the digestive tract. In addition to their nutritional benefits, kiwifruit is also prized for its distinctive appearance and flavour.
There are several varieties of gold and red kiwifruit produced in South Africa. One of the prominent variety ranges is the Skelton variety range, which was bought from SINO New Zealand in 2019 by a group of South African producers. Another popular variety is Soreli yellow-fleshed kiwis, grown under license to Variety Innovation in South Africa. Another variety currently available for commercial planting is the Dori variety of yellow-fleshed kiwis, grown under license from TopFruit South Africa.
The rapid growth in kiwifruit production highlighted the need to establish the basic infrastructure, research & development, as well as due diligence requirements for this industry. This led to the 2019 establishment of the South African Kiwi Growers NPC by growers and other stakeholders from all over the country to support and grow the kiwifruit industry.
Roelof du Toit is the Technical Manager for the Kiwi Connection and a board member of the South African Kiwi Growers NPC. Du Toit is extremely positive about the prospects of the South African Kiwifruit industry and represents the Western Cape Province on the board. “The grower association is still relatively young and as we have a close connection between us, it feels familiar, much like an extended family. Our chairman is Jonathan Tussler, and together we are committed to establishing the necessary infrastructure and due diligence for the industry. Currently, we are driving initiatives for market access to the USA,” explains Du Toit.
The Kiwi Connection was established in 2011 by south African exporters Freshworld/ the RSA group and TopFruit, South Africa’s most prominent fruit intellectual property management company. The company thus covers all the industry processes, from intellectual property, through production, and on to logistics and marketing. Du Toit is responsible for assisting growers with technical issues, and one of the biggest varieties produced by growers for Kiwi Connection is Dori.
Kiwifruit production challenges
While the returns from gold (and red) kiwifruit production are generally lucrative, establishing and producing this crop, is costly and technically challenging. The fruits are extremely sensitive to wind damage and the leaves and fruit are sensitive to sun damage, it is thus recommended that the orchards should be covered by overhead nets. As the plants are vines, they need to be planted with trellising for support. Producing and harvesting the fruit is highly labour-intensive, with labour inputs similar to table grape production. Under these protected conditions, kiwifruit generally need very limited pest control and crop protection applications.
As kiwifruit plants are either male or female plants, pollination of the plants is a complicated process. Du Toit explained that male plant provides the pollen but do not bear fruit. “We currently plant a few male plants in between the female plants. Bees do help in the pollination process, but as kiwifruit flowers do not have nectar, bees are not very keen on the flowers. As we have achieved mixed results with pollination by bees, we need to practice artificial pollination by hand to produce a more successful fruit set and bigger fruit sizes.”
Kiwi pollen is manufactured abroad by harvesting the male plants and grinding them to harvest pollen. This pollen is then blown up into the female canopy by machine blowers. Du Toit explained that their company was importing pollen from the USA, but this is expensive and considerably increased production costs. “We are currently planting our own male blocks to create pollen, and once we can produce and use our own pollen, this will make a massive difference to production costs.”
South Africa’s disease-free plant material provides a competitive edge.
Du Toit explained that in many countries there were diseases affecting kiwifruit vines, adding that South African plants are not affected and as a result, an opportunity exists to produce and export disease-free pollen in the future. Any plant material that is imported to South Africa is first quarantined by the South African Department of Agriculture and thoroughly checked to ensure that this material is disease free.
In conclusion, South African growers who invested in yellow and red kiwi production are seeing good returns. However, kiwi farming is an expensive and intensive process. The country also needs to firmly establish its new industry requirements and grow market access to sustain the rapid growth in production.