The sale of oranges by South Africa to the US has risen by between 15% and 38% compared with what it was a year ago, according to Summer Citrus from SA (SCSA), a group of Western Cape producers who target the US market.
Piet Smith, a member of the board of directors of SCSA, and a citrus producer and packager from Citrusdal in the Western Cape, said it became clear to them early in the season that consumers in the northern hemisphere wanted citrus products because they are a great source of vitamin C.
People also wanted to eat better during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
It now appears that South Africa’s soft citrus such as naartjies and clementines are faring well, and oranges are particularly sought after by US consumers.
Smit said the Americans even appeared to prefer South African oranges over their own summer fruits such as grapes and peaches.
In addition to the health benefits, oranges are seen as fruits that stay fresh for longer. This is particularly relevant now when people are going to the shops less frequently in an effort to avoid contracting Covid-19.
Cornel van der Merwe, chairperson of the Citrus Growers Association, and marketing and packaging director of the Komati Group, which is based in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, said South Africa expected to export about 140 million cartons of citrus this year, compared with 127 million last year.
Van der Merwe said the increase was thanks to the new cultivation of soft citrus and lemons that had begun bearing fruit.
He said the market was responding positively to citrus, which could be attributed to people wanting to consume vitamin C during the pandemic.
South Africa, the second-largest exporter of citrus in the world after Spain, is in a good position to meet the increased worldwide demand.
South Africa exports citrus to Europe, Russia, the UK, China, Japan, the Middle East and the US, as well as to Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Producer prices are also better than last season as a result of the favourable exchange rate and because South Africa’s competition, including Egypt and Spain, had an early end to their seasons because of adverse climate conditions.
Smit said that one of the biggest challenges for the local producers was keeping their workers healthy, because the fruit had to be picked and packaged by hand. And, once in the port, many hands are needed to handle the fruit.
Although it had been difficult to make sure that fruit was shipped from South African ports on time, the SCSA contracted large-scale shipping to get citrus to the US, which had helped to sidestep some of the delays in the Cape Town harbour, said Smit.
As a result of strict measures around plant health, and to prevent pests from affecting American citrus, only Western Cape citrus could be exported to the US at this stage.
According to Van der Merwe, the local industry was awaiting protocols that would give producers in the rest of the country access to the American market, a positive prospect for the industry.
In the meantime, operations at the Cape Town harbour, which saw extreme delays and bottlenecks during May and June, have improved considerably.
This was thanks to ongoing engagements between the Western Cape government and the management of Transnet’s terminal and harbour personnel, said David Maynier, MEC for finance and economic opportunities in the Western Cape.
In the middle of June, the waiting period for ships to dock at the Cape Town harbour peaked at 22 days. This has been reduced to just six days.
According to Maynier, the average number for crane movement to load cargo on to ships shot up from 533 in the week of May 25, to 1 661 in the second week of last month.
The delays, which were exacerbated by the outbreak of Covid-19, led to three major international shipping companies deciding to dock in Port Elizabeth and in Walvis Bay in Namibia.
This created additional transportation costs for fruit exporters, especially in the citrus industry, which was in the middle of its export season.
The situation had improved to such an extent that the waiting period for ships had been reduced to just two days by Friday.
“If we can keep it up, international shipping lines will hopefully return to dock in Cape Town by the middle of this month,” Maynier said.
Jonathan Horn, managing director of Maersk SA and the Indian Ocean, said the company had adjusted its Europe-South Africa route to dock in Durban and Port Elizabeth, and had excluded Cape Town. However, the west African route included Cape Town.
“Now that the waiting period at the Cape Town terminal has been considerably reduced, we will include it again,” said Horn.