The South African table grape industry has been enjoying better growing conditions this year with higher water availability and good crops expected in most regions, but an industry representative has said conditions so far have been "tough" in the country's leading markets.
The U.K. and European markets- which generally receive around three-quarters of South Africa's table grape exports - have been challenging over the last couple of months due to greater volumes shipped from Peru, according to Willem Bestbier, CEO of industry association SATI.
High stocks of local fruit in the U.S. last year combined with a marked recovery in Peru's table grape production this season have led to much more fruit being shipped to South Africa's key markets. Peru's table grape exports to Europe by week 1 were 100% higher year-on-year, an industry representative recently said.
"We’re finding the market quite tough. The main reason is because of the higher stocks in the U.S., which had the result of when Peru started to pick their grapes, and Chile a bit later, America was not as attractive as it normally is at this time of the year and therefore the other Southern Hemisphere countries also started to send more volumes into our main markets, Europe and the UK."
But he hoped that that now U.S. stocks have returned to normal levels, Chile and Peru might be able to send higher volumes to that market, providing some relief to South Africa.
"We're just not sure how that's going to turn out, but we're hoping for a better mid- and late-season," he said.
With the Hex River region now coming online, South Africa is entering its peak export period. The crop forecast is for 63 million to 70 million boxes, which is slightly higher than last year.
Good rains last year and normal weather over recent months have created more favorable growing conditions than the previous season. However, Bestbier noted that although the Olifants River region did now have water in its dam, the area seemed to be recovering from its very severe drought slower than initially anticipated.
Meanwhile, the harvests in the Northern Cape's Orange River region - one of the country's two biggest production areas, along with the Hex River region - are running around 10 to 14 days late, which has put pressure on shipments to China where the Chinese New Year will be celebrated early this year, Bestbier said.
Export growth to China yet to take off
Although South Africa in late 2016 achieved what was described as a "breakthrough" in its export protocol with China, shipments to that market have not yet seen any substantial growth and the Far Eastern market only receives around 3% of exports.
Bestbier said while he is grateful for the Chinese authorities for granting the protocol allowing the fruit to be shipped at a more favorable temperature, South Africa needed to boost its performance in the market.
"We are formulating a strategy to raise awareness of South African table grapes in China," he said. "Over the course of the next few months, running into our next season, we are very keen and committed to making much better inroads into the Chinese market."
He said South Africa has a good and rising supply of new grape varieties which are proving to be popular in China, but he emphasized that more work needed to be done to better understand the market.
"As an industry, we are still sorting out the technicalities around the protocol. This season we are monitoring quite a few consignments of various varieties under various logistical configurations into China to see exactly what works and what doesn't work," he said.
"We have to be sure that we have the capacity to land our product in good condition there to compete with any other product, so that’s all the preparatory work that we’re busy with now."