South Africa

Cape Town

Arriving into Cape Town the evidence is everywhere that this is a city in crisis.  Prominent notices are strung up around the airport and large displays highlight the importance of water and the current major scarcity.   Coming from the UK, it’s hard to truly appreciate what water scarcity feels like- IMG_3780 although in the South East of England we have been perilously close at times to standpipes in the streets.

The Sunday Times states that there has been no significant rainfall in the past three years, this is against a reported average of 788mm – actually more than reported for my home in North Kent (650mm).  Some action has been taken – the same Times article reports that Cape Town residents have been able to cut their water consumption by 60 percent in three years, indicating that things can certainly be done to reduce water needs when collective action (and nudge policies) are used effectively.  However, more is at play here than first meets the eye- yes there is a severe water shortage, but there is also (I was told by several) an infrastructure issue due to increased migration into the outskirts of Cape Town (into the townships and camps) and therefore a ‘double whammy’ of drought plus increased demand.  This latter feature- demand due to population increase is one that cropped up time and time again during my visit in different guises.


Having spent a couple of days working in Cape Town (and being very careful with my water consumption), I headed East to Stellenbosch. As I had a largely free day (21/3 was a public holiday for Human Rights Day) so I took up an offer to visit a couple of apple orchards. This really wasn’t part of my Nuffield study, as the orchards in question were trials, pitting some East Malling rootstocks (still globally important) against the Geneva series of rootstocks. South African soils are highly variable and there are many microclimates, so it is difficult to generalise, however my host Nikko from the SA company, Stargrow, told me that in many areas there is little topsoil  (or sand or heavy clay) and therefore the apple rootstocks that are needed must be more vigorous than those often used in European production systems. For many years the mainstay of production has been M793 or MM109- a Malling-Merton rootstock. Both long forgotten in Europe, these have been vital to the growth of SA as an apple superpower over the past fifty years (for some more info see this useful synopsis). Our latest effort M116 is going head to head with Geneva rootstocks CG222 and CD4202- both more dwarfing rootstocks than the earlier rootstocks (more on a par with the long dead – but still used M7 rootstock). I visited a rootstock trial, which had extremely variable results from a large number of rootstock and rootstock-interstock combinations.  Despite some challenging soil SA growers achieve some of the best yields in the world with 100-120 tonnes/hectare being the mainstay of production. However, challenges remain with sunburn in Granny Smith leading to grade out levels of 55%, the industry is innovating quickly, utilising shade nets or even tree nets to reduce light levels to boost yields.  The interesting finding for me was that irrigation is the norm, even in droughted conditions, with farmers resorting to providing their own water sources (5000 cubic meters/ha/annum). This has made me think carefully about how we might go about selecting rootstocks in the future, perhaps increasing our partnerships with nurseries in SA, to ensure that we select rootstocks that are able to better utilise available water sources- which some undoubtably already do to ensure that production can continue, but in a way that is more water-efficient.

The university

While in Stellenbosch I took a little time to meet some academics at the university. I was kindly hosted by Prof. Rouvay Roodt-Wilding, a population geneticist in the Genetics Department at Stellenbosch. I met some of her colleagues and we discussed a little about what NIAB EMR and Stellenbosch may do together. Of importance for my Nuffield was that very little is done on soft fruit in the university or in the ARC- the government-funded research institutes, which may present an opportunity for some useful exchange.


Haygrove Heaven

From Stellenbosch I drove to Hermanus, where I wound my way up into the hills and down into the Hemel en Aarde valley, where Haygrove Heaven is situated. I met the co-owner, Sean Tager, who was kind enough to talk thorough the Haygrove SA business with me and their impressive growth over the past ten years.  Serving both the domestic market and the export markets in Europe and increasingly Asia, the businesses goal is to serve production windows that maximise price.  To my surprise, strawberries are a minor focus of the business, with raspberries providing the major market both domestically and internationally.  Sean explained that there isn’t really a strawberry culture in SA and so with limited demand prices remain high, in turn limiting market access. Most of their strawberries are grown at the Eden site, which was next on my list to visit.

Haygrove Eden

At Eden I had the pleasure of meeting Dirk Rabie, the farm business manager for Haygrove Eden. Dirk is passionate about what he does and despite having only 7 months in the job has a firm grasp on all aspects of production. Without giving too much away, the whole operation is impressive and is really a well-integrated operation. Unlike many UK grower businesses Haygrove SA take high-health plants from micropropagation, through to mother stock and propagate all of their own material for production. This allows them total control over most aspects of production. Furthermore, an aligned business, Haygrove Tunnels SA produces the structures under which fruit is produced, allowing innovation in tunnel design and production to go hand in hand.  Dirk and I had an extensive conversation about the propagation and growing of strawberries, which I shall spare you the details of, but suffice to say, they are doing a lot of things right and on in some ways much better than we do back at home.

The wider issues

Whether it’s apples, blueberries, citrus, raspberries or strawberries, fruit in SA is an important piece of the economy.  However, there are a number of challenges which need to be addressed for the industry to remain buoyant:

  1. Water and a changing climate
  2. Labour – wages and unions
  3. Markets- tariffs,  other competition and new markets
  4. Land and politics

Water and a changing climate

Irrigation is the norm in SA for apple and berry production with about 5000 cubic meters of water needed per hectare, per year in many growing regions for apples. Oftentimes this is not a particular problem as farmers have dug their own reservoirs and boreholes. However, as one grower put it to me, “irrigation is a supplement, not a replacement”.  In many regions of the Cape, water restrictions are not as severe as Cape Town, but even so rainfall has not been normal. As I was driving from Cape Town to George (and back) I saw many reservoirs that were over 2/3’s empty (though to be fair it is not the rain season).  For strawberries (where natural rainfall doesn’t impact upon a covered crop), everything I saw indicated that water is used responsibly; the norm is to irrigate 4-6 times a day to a point where there is 10% run off.  Haygrove have a particularly sophisticated system of irrigation scheduling though- relying on dynamic advice from a dedicated on-site team.  It will be the confluence of a more variable climate and an increasing population that really will define the sustainability of fruit cultivation.

Labour, wages and unnions

The employment offered by growers is valuable, as the work pays a reasonable wage and employs large numbers of people. Haygrove alone employ around 2500 every year and run special schemes for training and development of skills within the business- their “Bright Futures” project.  Many who have gone through the Haygrove system have then gone on to set up their own operations, in joint venture programmes with Haygrove, growing both the market and the opportunities for upskilling still further.  This is clearly something to be proud of- as it embeds skills locally. However, whether it is the people serving dinner in the hotels, filling up the cars, acting as parking assistants or picking fruit, it is clear that there is still an enormous wealth gap in the country. This is most evident on the outskirts of every town, where (depending upon the size of the town) the associated informal settlements and townships are large. Here you will find many living in poor conditions- some with no access to water and electricity. This is the cause in many cases of strikes, which in many ways are not directed at the employer, but at the government. While there is ample evidence of government action- I saw many townships where corrugated shacks had been replaced by neat houses and community facilities, it is the constant influx of migrants that places pressure on development. Looking at the government’s own statistics migration is set to increase by ~500,000 in the Western Cape by 2021 (currently at 6,510,300- mid 2017- national population ~57 million).  There is of course still mass unemployment in SA- quoting from the government’s National Development Plan 2030  unemployment is as high as 46.6% for black youths aged 15-24.  This poses enormous challenges for the government, as (working under the assumption of a traditional economic model) the economy must grow more quickly  to provide jobs.  Across Africa populations are growing- some estimates project a doubling of growth by 2050 from 1.2 to 2.5 billion.  This is coupled with the fact that although the middle class is growing, it is not growing as much as previously thought, somewhere between 50 and 75% of the population are either poor, or experience times of hardship, leaving only 1/4 people considered to be securely middle class (contrast that with middle income ranges from 64% in Spain to about 80% in Denmark).

Markets- tariffs,  other competition and new markets

The market for strawberries is a contrast to the raspberry market in South Africa, with a largely export-driven raspberry market, but a  strawberry market focussed on domestic production. This is largely due to air freight costs (for value) and the shorter shelf-life of strawberries when compared with other crops.

The market in SA is serviced by about 350-400 ha in total (the majority of which is in the North of the country)-  contrast this to the UK which had around 5000 hectares (back in 2011). This means that production is approximately 7% of that of the UK- when taking the population size differences into account, 10% of the UK.

Strawberries are a brutal business in SA- as Dirk said to me “they keep you humble”.  This is primarily due to the glut of fruit in the market during the main season and the lower value per kilo than other fruits means that margins can be slender.

Land, politics and prices

The land situation in SA is receiving a lot of attention of late, though interestingly every farmer that I spoke to said they were unconcerned about a Zimbabwe-style land grab, citing the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa is a popular choice (and respected as a man of integrity) and that he has an election to win (and therefore might be looking for some short-term populist policy). What is more important to note though is that land is relatively expensive, which does serve as an effective barrier to entry (as it does in so many countries). Furthermore, populist policies can sometimes not go the way the government of the day expects (referenda especially!) and so a part of me wonders whether there are risks attached to the current course of action.


As a result of my trip, I was left slightly more puzzled as to what the future may hold for the South African berry industry.

My initial thoughts are that over the coming decades there will be a shift from export to serving a growing domestic market, primarily because there will be shifts in the viability of exports over the coming decade- environmental footprints, competition and tariffs being three major drivers of change. If the middle class grows in SA, berry consumption will probably rise, which in turn could drive profits for for smallholder farmers (if perhaps they joint venture with larger businesses).  I am not the only one to think this- others have pointed to this market opportunity and the potential for high-value horticulture to transform lives; all the evidence that I have seen suggests that it already has.

However, there is a flip side to this- exports could suffer (for the same reasons as outlined above) but internal markets could fail to grow. What then? This would be as a result of things like the failure of the poor to rise into the middle class- climate, immigration and population growth are the three spectres that hang over the potential feast. I am not yet confident of the likelihood of any of these factors playing a significantly detrimental role- but it is something that I would like to be able to study a bit further as I continue my Nuffield journey.

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