South Africa's rising pineapple market share
Pineapple farming is an important export industry for South Africa but the crop does come with its challenges, such as a highly competitive market and fluctuating needs that require creative solutions. At www.freshfruitportal.com we visit the heart of the country's pineapple country in the Eastern Cape to find out more about the tropical plant's processes and possibilities.
The small town of Bathurst in the Eastern Cape is marked by a large structure known as the 'Big Pineapple', which is the largest of its kind in the world ahead of similar constructions in Australia and Hawaii; a well-known icon for a district that is ideal for pineapple production.
Mark Harris, Chairperson of juice company Summerpride Foods, says "pineapple farming is not forgiving of mismanagement".
Harris believes the pineapple industry has a good future, although that depends on diversification. This includes being aware of what is profitable and viable.
For example, Summerpride focused on canning in the past but high costs triggered a switch to juice production.
The company now produces between 80,000-100,000 metric tons (MT) of pineapple annually for the juice market, of which 85% is exported via Port Coega near Port Elizabeth to nations as widely scattered as Israel, South America and Europe. The business is the only one of its kind in South Africa, pumping out 14,000MT of concentrate each year.
Summerpride exports mostly to the European Union but doesn't have set contracts with suppliers, with a large amount of fruit being sold on the spot market.
Pineapple farmers have also had to get creative with alternative projects that focus on aspects such as zero waste. After the canning project was switched over to juice, Summerpride was saddled with a surplus of unused flesh.
In response, it has recently commissioned the building of a plant that will extract dietary fiber out of the flesh, which is used in a variety of industries ranging from baking to meat production as a bulk extender, adding weight to products without excess calories or sugar.
He says the industry is highly competitive with pineapple growing countries facing a tough time whenever Thailand has a good season, as it just had. Pressures are compounded by the recession in Europe that leads to a decrease in demand for luxury goods.
"We're not cheap producers and can’t compete with countries like Thailand and Indonesia in the global market, as they are much lower cost producers," he says.
"The selling price of pineapples is largely impacted by production in Thailand, which is a huge global player (supplying between 70-80 % of the world market) and the demand in the target market."
Bathurst Pineapple Grower’s Association chairperson Mike Japp, explains some of the other aspects and challenges involved in pineapple production.
The Smooth Cayenne is favored for processing in the Eastern Cape, while the Queen variety is mostly grown in the Hluhluwe district for both the local and export fresh fruit markets.
The process is quite labor intensive, requiring harvest, picking, maintenance and planting throughout the year.
"It takes two years to grow a pineapple. Then another two years to grow your second crop. Then after that we knock it all down and start all over again," says Japp.
"So we try and plant almost every month, to ensure we have cash flow in two years time. It takes a lot of planning."
He echoes Harris' comments when saying how vital efficient planning is with pineapples.
"Because we export we have very strict record-keeping from fertilizers to chemicals, traceability goes right back to the day the plant was put in the ground."
This is along the strict lines of the international Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Act.
Japp is proud that Bathurst is the furthest south that pineapples are grown in the world, doing well despite taking longer than in countries like Thailand.
"Soil preparation is the most vital part of the process, because you are sitting with that plant in the ground for four years. Any mistake that you make in planting, you sit with that problem for four years.
"Soils can vary, they just don’t like clay soil, and it has to be a well-drained soil, which is why a lot of pineapple are grown on slopes, or on built up ridges."
The biggest danger with pests and disease is if the plants get rot from standing in water for too long. Otherwise, most ailments are easy to tackle with chemicals or a foliar spray.
"We’re trying out a few hybrids like MD 2 and 73-50, which were both developed in Hawaii, and promise to be very good table fruit that are low in acid, which would also make them useful for juicing."
When farmers pick the fruit they break the tops off and use the crown to grow a new plant. Queen growers however don't plant the tops, instead opting to use collar slippers or suckers, which are broken off as the plant grows.
A court case is currently pending based on a batch of imported fertilizer, distributed by a company in 2007, with unacceptable amounts of cadmium that resulted in the loss of European Union certification for a big crop, and a range of other consequences.
"We lost a lot of growers," says Japp.
A 2009 National Department of Agriculture (NDA) report shows the growth of South Africa’s share in the global pineapple market is on the rise.
Despite being ranked 39 on the world export market, the industry holds greats potential with an upward growth curve. South Africa is currently ranked sixth in unfermented pineapple juice exports.