SA’s wool sector has R5bn question for China

South Africa’s wool industry is on tenterhooks as exporters seek clarity on a Chinese ban on imports of the fiber following an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease earlier this year in the world’s second-biggest producer.

At issue is whether China has fully reversed rules governing shipments of cloven-hoof animal products even though South Africa’s agriculture department in April declared the country free of the highly contagious disease, according to Deon Saayman, the general manager for industry body Cape Wools.

Uncertainty about whether the lifting of the ban means storage requirements for wool from previously disease-hit areas still applies prompted Cape Wools to cancel its opening sale of the new season, the first time the weekly auctions have been halted in about three decades years, Saayman said by phone from the eastern city of Port Elizabeth where the auctions are held. 

China accounts for about two-thirds of the country’s wool exports, while the industry generates about R5bn in sales per season, Saayman said.

"If it goes on like this it will have a dire effect on the whole value chain - the buyers, the brokers and the farmers," he said. "It could have serious consequences."

Chinese authorities initially banned South African wool exports in February, weeks after foot-and-mouth disease was reported in northern Limpopo province. Three months later they allowed shipments, provided the wool complied with World Organisation for Animal Health storage regulations, clearing the export of about R266m of the fibre from the previous season, Saayman said.

Strapped for cash

Clarence Friskin, the chairman of the South African Wool and Mohair Buyers Association, said the confusion was straining members’ finances.

"The bottom line is buyers have spent all this money on wool that they haven’t been able to ship yet," Friskin said. "They just don’t have the finances to continue buying until some of this wool is moved and clarity is obtained."

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has engaged with Chinese authorities and is expected to provide clarity this week, Saayman said. A spokesperson for the department didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment.

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