South Africa “the new kid on the block” in global kiwifruit industry

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South Africa “the new kid on the block” in global kiwifruit industry

South Africa may not come to most people’s minds at the mention of major kiwifruit suppliers, but the head of Biogold Intellectual Property (BGIP) believes the country’s microclimates coupled with strong partnerships with breeders could soon change that. 

Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal, Peter Turner, managing director of the South Africa-based group of companies, explained that the country generally lacked good chilling, with only 27 kilometers of the country on the same latitude as New Zealand.

However, he said while this limited possibilities for green kiwifruit production, there were many opportunities for other cultivars.

“The lower chilling requirement of yellow and red kiwis opens up the opportunity to a slightly broader range of production regions than with the Hayward types that have previously been attempted in South Africa,” he said.

Turner is involved with a production unit called Mpumalanga Kiwi Orchards (MKO) which has 100 hectares of both green, yellow and kiwi pollen orchards, with half the land dedicated to development of yellow varieties.

The company produces pollen for export, which is marketed by SA Kiwi Pollen – a related variety management company headed by Turner.

With its climate and geography, South Africa is able to produce kiwifruit far earlier than other Southern Hemisphere suppliers.

Interest in kiwifruit production has been on the rise in South Africa over recent years, but the country, like most in Africa, is still a net importer of the fruit, largely from the likes of Europe and New Zealand.

“There’s a really good opportunity for South Africa not only to become more self-sufficient, but also to be an exporter, particularly of yellow kiwi in that early ripening timeslot,” he said.

“So there is an opportunity for South Africa to play a role as a Southern Hemisphere supplier and to link with Northern Hemisphere suppliers in a partnership similar to what [New Zealand marketer] Zespri does, but with other varieties that can offer the consumer an alternative, or in a somewhat competitive manner to Zespri over time.” 

Turner said that fruit grown by MKO has not yet been exported due to the high prices in the domestic market, but he said shipments to international markets would begin over time when volumes were larger.

He pointed out South Africa had a very strong export industry in fruits such as citrus, apples and pears, and therefore already had infrastructure the kiwifruit sector could “link into.”

“We also have some very big players like Dutoit, Graaf Fruits and others who are doing trials with us on kiwi, who will also enter the industry when they feel they have a good enough understanding of these varieties’ needs and requirements,” he said.

“So we’re right at the early stage of having a good proof of concept that the improved yellow and green varieties that we’ve introduced will actually create a viable export industry, and to support local demand in the future.”

There are several varieties that are being evaluated at the MKO orchards.

Turner said the Italian-origin yellow cultivar Soreli - being managed in South Africa by SA Kiwi Pollen - was showing “very good promise”, and explained there were numerous others in the pipeline that were also showing good signs.

Fresh Fruit Portal recently reported that one grower, Danie Meyer, had experienced negative initial results with Soreli, but Turner clarified that he was a green kiwifruit grower who was merely engaging in some trials of the variety and had not been aware of the ideal picking time in his early growing area.

“Our aim is to provide growers an option of new green, new yellow, new red and kiwiberry varieties over a period of the next few years as we complete the evaluation,” he said.

“We’re quite reticent to be too gung-ho about announcing the performance of the varieties before we’ve been able to evaluate them from a scientific means, and that also includes South Africa to be able to validate storage and transit storage capacity as well.” 

As shipping transit times to major destination markets take at least 21 days, Turner said it would be crucial the product could store well.

“At this stage we’re really just reaching the first commercial crops of Soreli, and the others are following on behind in various formats. Some are a few varieties in a row, others are semi commercial – two or three hectares in different parts of the country,” he said.

“In the case of Soreli we now have close to 50 hectares planted in the various microclimates across South Africa.”

SA Kiwi Pollen has a number of close partnerships with the likes of Italy’s Jingold and the University of Udine, who have some “very exciting varieties in the pipeline”, and the company also represents some breeders from China.

“So we have quite a bit of product in the pipeline, wanting to offer South Africa growers the best option that can be available,” Turner said.

“I think there are some very interesting partnerships that are developing between South African, European and Chinese-based companies and I think that there is sort of a new kid on the block in terms of kiwi and opportunities for South Africa to play a very different role.

“It’s been a non-event in kiwi, but our microclimate, proximity to service markets and cost-effective means of production lend themselves to some very interesting partnerships of bigger companies investing in South Africa and sourcing their own counter-seasonal fruit…so there are some exciting developments that are coming in that direction.”

Photos courtesy of Peter Turner

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