In the heart of South Africa’s rugged Swartberg and Koue Bokkeveld mountains lies the alps towering majestically above fertile citrus farmland, forming a wall that sustains enough rainfall to attract farmers to the south.
Siabonga Mbete, 34, grows tangerine – a small seedless fruit of the citrus family that is turning South African farmers into millionaires.
As trucks veer off the dusty road into farmlands to collect some tangerines and lemons at Mbete’s smallholder farm located in Eastern Cape Province for the export market, the young farmer is upbeat about citrus farming, which has spawned multiple agribusinesses and unlocked agricultural potential of the country.
“This farmland is a lifeline for most of us in our community and this farm does help us a lot in putting food on the table and providing for our families. Personally, this farm has also helped me to gain skills and I plan to start my own citrus farming project in future,” Mbete, one of over 200 seasonal workers at the Khangela Citrus Farm, told ChinAfrica.
According to the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) of South Africa, the local citrus industry has achieved remarkable growth over the past few years, with over 160 million cartons of fruit packed for export across the globe in 2022. By 2032, the sector aims to export an additional 260 million cartons a year, contributing 240,000 jobs and 50 billion rands ($2.66 billion) in revenue annually to the South African economy.
Each year, the citrus season in South Africa brings a good harvest, especially for the black-owned Eastern Cape farms. For instance, the Khangela Citrus Farm in Addo region, some 72 km northeast of Port Elizabeth, has been exporting citrus produce like oranges, tangerines and lemons to Japan and some Middle Eastern countries.
The farm was bought by the South African government, which invested millions of rands on infrastructure and skills development for the surrounding communities in Sarah Baartman District Municipality in Eastern Cape.
On the other side, South Africa’s Western Cape Province enjoys a unique Mediterranean-like climate which is renowned for its fertile valley nourished by the Olifants River where tasty and nutritious citrus fruits are grown.
“Our success is made possible by the support we get from the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Apart from clinching some export contracts to the Middle East, our cooperative also supplies local companies that add value to our fruits,” said Karabo Mduli, a co-owner of the Bokamotso Citrus Project, a family-run smallholder farm.
Arguably, the citrus groves of South Africa have supported generations of families that continue to live, work and thrive on their farms, and this long heritage of citrus production continues to play a major role in the economic future and lives of successive generations.
Having started small with about 1,000 fruit trees, Mduli has seen her agribusiness venture grow immensely to over 8,000 trees. She has since managed to employ 50 local workers in addition to over 100 seasonal labourers to help to manage her agricultural venture.
However, citrus exporters like Mbete and Mduli are now grappling with the burden of much stricter regulations which were recently imposed by the European Union (EU) on South African citrus imports. The action has shaken South Africa’s export farmers and hurt the profitability of local citrus growers.
In addition, logistical issues have proven to be a major challenge for most South African citrus farmers, especially those in the northern part of the country, and Mduli is no exception.
Critical new market
In this context, the CGA has noted that a revised lemon protocol signed by South Africa and China in 2021 was a major achievement.
The association believes that with local lemon production expected to grow by 175,000 tonnes by 2024, the finalisation of the revised protocol means China will now become “a critical new market” and will secure 325 million rands ($17.32 million) in new export revenue.
“We envision exporting 25,000 tonnes of lemons to China by 2024 and the current trend indicates favourable export figures,” CGA Chief Operating Officer Paul Hardman recently said.
South Africa has already enjoyed phenomenal growth in exports to China in recent years, with shipments of grapefruit, orange and soft citrus reaching 130,000 tonnes in 2020.
Hardman noted that South Africa’s citrus export industry is a key source of employment, providing 140,000 jobs and contributing $1.6 billion in annual export revenue. He added that the improvement in trade relations with China has played a vital role in job creation and revenue generation.
Statistics show that South Africa is the second-largest exporter of fresh citrus in the world, after record-breaking exports of 146 million cartons of citrus in 2020, thanks to the country’s favourable weather conditions that enable fruits to grow in optimal conditions, producing superior summer citrus that is seedless and easy to peel.
Growth projections for soft citrus, lemons and Valencia oranges indicate an expected additional 6.8 billion rands ($362.36 million) in foreign exchange earnings and the creation of 22,250 stable jobs over the next three years.
Trade analysts say China-South Africa trade has taken a giant leap from $1.4 billion in 1998 to $56.7 billion in 2022, and that gaining access to the Chinese market is a vital step in boosting an export-led growth of the South African citrus industry, which is a commitment the government has made under the Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan.
After the EU erected barriers to imports of South Africa’s citrus last July, the government suggested that they might have to start looking elsewhere for markets.
“As a government, we open more export markets for the industry; as the estimates suggest, there will be roughly 300,000 tonnes [of agricultural products] added to the current volumes in the next three years that require an export market,” Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza recently noted.
African Times has published the article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine.