South Africa's guava industry at crucial crossroads -

South Africa's guava industry at crucial crossroads

South Africa's nascent guava industry is facing some tough challenges, such as raising its marketing profile and fighting off a killer disease that has hit growers in the northern part of the country. Despite tough conditions the relatively new exotic fruit has promising export potential, as found out when we spoke to several industry players.

Guava Producers' Association chair Wiehahn Victor, argues the biggest challenge lies in growing the market both domestically and abroad for the fruit.

However, since 2008 the industry in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has been raising the fruit's profile with a marketing campaign to increase demand locally.

Victor explains the focus of the campaign was to push the fruit's "excellent nutritional value", versatility and its availability for seven or eight months a year.

A recipe book was produced along with a media campaign including magazine articles and live broadcast discussions about the fruit and its high nutritional value; guavas have three times the level of vitamin C as oranges.

He says the industry is trying to market the fruit as 'exotic' along the lines of kiwifruit and pomegranates. Until the market grows substantially, domestically funds are not available to conduct a similar promotional campaign overseas.

South Africa is relatively small player in the global guava market exporting less than ZAR35 million (US$4.2 million) in 2011, according to the National Agricultural Marketing Council.

A further challenge for the export of fresh guavas is they only have a 14-day shelf life, making export possible only in processed form, fetching lower prices. Although, growers are eager to promote both forms as they offer different opportunities domestically and internationally.

Out of the 45,000 metric tons (MT) of guava produced annually about a third is grown in the Western Cape, where Fan Retief is the main cultivar, with the rest grown in the Northern provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

However, the northern areas are currently battling guava wilt disease, a soil-borne fungus that can kill a tree within a month of infection, which has wiped out nearly 30% of the trees in this part of the country.

Nelspruit farmer Frans Buys describes the disease as having a "devasting" affect on the area. He explains that one of his blocks, which has 2,500 trees, has fallen victim to the infection.

"At this rate, about two years from now, I don't think there will be any trees left in that block," he says.

Agricultural Research Council (ARC) researcher Maritha Schoeman, explains that Northern farmers originally grew Fan Retief but that this cultivar fell prey to guava wilt in 1981. ARC introduced a restistant cultivar in 1995 called TS G2, which also became susceptible when the disease mutated in 1999.

Schoeman has tested 15 fungicides so far, in search of a chemical solution but so far with no luck. She pins more hope on grafting a resistant cultivar, but says this is a long-term process with no promise of success.

She explains that guava wilt is a global problem, which occurs in many areas. She says that a recent trip to the Guava Symposium in Brazil yielded no solutions, although it did give her a few ideas for resistant strain production.

In the meantime, farmers like Buys are trying to plant new trees in an attempt to get production out of them before they inevitably get infected. Buys says he is likely to convert all his crops to litchi and macadamia if a resistant strain is not discovered soon.

He explains that Northern farmers would like to continue their support of the guava marketing campaign, especially as they produce almost a quarter of their crop for the fresh market and would like to stimulate it.

However, funds are running short and without a crop it will be impossible to market. He believes if guava wilt persists there will be a huge decline in the industry in the north in the next few years. By stark contrast, in the West growers remain optimistic about the production and growth of what they describe as the "wonder fruit".

The guava industry seems to be at a crucial crossroads poised between crisis and success.