Another record export season for SA citrus, but picture not as rosy as it seems

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The increased volumes of citrus exports in 2021 did not translate into higher returns and increased foreign revenue for local growers.
The increased volumes of citrus exports in 2021 did not translate into higher returns and increased foreign revenue for local growers.
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  • The southern African citrus industry is celebrating another record breaking export season this year.
  • However, the increased volumes of citrus exports in 2021 did not translate into higher returns and increased foreign revenue for local growers.
  • Challenges included a global shipping crisis, stringent additional phytosanitary measures by the EU and serious operational challenges at South African ports.


Although the Southern African citrus industry is celebrating another record breaking export season - the third year in a row - global and domestic challenges meant it did not translate into higher returns for local growers this year.

In March this year, the Citrus Growers' Association of Southern Africa (CGA) estimated that all previous export records will be broken with 158.7 million cartons exported this year. Even more - 161.6 million cartons of fruit - ended up being exported in the 2021 season - despite tough circumstances. In 2019, 130 million cartons were exported followed by 146 million cartons in 2020.

However, the increased volumes of citrus exports in 2021 did not translate into higher returns and increased foreign revenue for local growers, according to Paul Hardman, acting CEO of the CGA. Last year, CGA - excluding Eswatini and Zimbabwean exports - generated R20 billion in foreign revenue. Figures for the 2021 season are not available yet.

"With the local industry expected to export 200 million cartons of fruit within the next five years, it is critical that challenges experienced during this season are resolved ahead of 2022," Hardman said in a statement on Tuesday.

Serious challenges faced by the local citrus growers this year included a global shipping crisis, stringent additional phytosanitary measures by the European Union (EU) that are costing the industry more than R4 billion annually, as well as serious operational challenges at South African ports.

The global shipping crisis saw logistics prices soaring, while the slow turnover of ships caused major uncertainty in shipping schedules and backlogs at ports across the world. As a result, there was a dramatic increase in logistics prices - on average, freight costs increased by approximately 30% to 40% when compared to last year - and a global shortage of containers which meant cargo had to be stored at ports, and across the supply chain, for longer and at a greater cost.

Erratic vessel schedules

On top of this, vessel schedules also became erratic as a result of shipping lines responding to a strong demand on the east-west trade routes. These changing schedules meant that growers were also unable to optimise between markets, in particular the fast growing Far East market. Shipping to the Middle East from southern ports in the country became near impossible at times, which meant growers had no choice but to ship from the Durban port infrequently.

Compounding the global challenges was the impact of the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal in mid-July, resulting in the Durban port being shut down for days at the peak of the citrus season, causing major backlogs across the value chain. This was followed by Transnet declaring a force majeure across all ports as a result of a cyberattack.

These challenges had a major impact on the timeous arrival of fruit in overseas markets, which negatively affected grower revenue. Fruit arrived way too late in some export markets - in some cases by over a month - while global and domestic challenges also resulted in an over-supply in other key markets, which drove down prices, particularly for lemons and soft citrus.

Furthermore, the EU's import measures on citrus black spot (CBS) is a major threat to future growth in this market and is currently costing the local industry in excess of R4 billion annually in order to comply with these market access conditions. According to the CGA, there is scientific evidence that citrus fruit without leaves is not a pathway for the spread of the CBS pest. 

"While the remarkable efforts of stakeholders across the value chain meant that fruit continued to be exported throughout the season, [the various challenges] still came at a major personal and financial expense to everyone involved," said Hardman.

"There is no doubt that citrus growers are investing heavily for the future, with more than R1 billion in grower levies over the next four years going into research and technology to support market access and transformation, while creating an enabling logistics environment to move the fruit."

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