Blueberries being processed at a factory. Picture: REUTERS/Neil Hall
Blueberries being processed at a factory. Picture: REUTERS/Neil Hall

SA’s booming blueberry industry is looking to gain access to the Asian markets, saying this will create an additional 12,000 jobs in the sector.

The industry is labour intensive and employs three to four workers per hectare. SA does not have access to key markets such as China and South Korea at a time when blueberry imports are growing phenomenally in Asia. This is because SA has not yet complied with the region's export protocols for the fruit.  

“If we gained access to the Chinese market, for example, we could create an additional 12,000 jobs in South Africa, increasing the industry’s projected employment numbers from 14,000 in 2023 to 26,000,” said Jean Kotzé, the chair of the South African Berry Producers Association.

Data compiled by the association shows that SA’s blueberry production is expected to reach a record high of 17,000 tonnes in 2019, up from 11,300 tonnes in 2018.

This will mean an exponential increase in jobs created from 1,000 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2019, said Kotzé. By 2023, the industry expects production to reach 50,000 tonnes which will translate into 14,000 jobs.

 “Amid the doom and gloom of South Africa’s recently released unemployment figures, this is a very good story to tell. But the story can be so much better if South Africa’s blueberry industry can gain access to core export markets in the Far East,” said Kotzé.

Kotzé said the potential to grow the export markets is huge. At present, approximately 70% of blueberries produced locally are destined for export markets. The value of blueberry exports grew from R133m in 2013 to just over R1bn in 2018.

In China blueberry imports grew from 2,400 tonnes in 2013 to more than 12,000 tonnes in 2017. It imports berries mainly from Chile and Peru.

“SA should be competing directly with these countries, especially because we grow high-quality blueberry varieties that are preferred by the international markets,” said Kotzé.

“We also have shorter transit times to markets in the East compared to our competitors, and the ability to expand production throughout SA due to the versatility of blueberry crops, which can be grown virtually anywhere.

 “Given access to these markets, South African blueberries will be a formidable competitor,” he said.

Kotzé said the association is aware that export protocols for other fruits have taken as long as 12 to 17 years. At this rate the South African blueberry industry will gain access to the Chinese market only in 2045.

“For the sake of the many unemployed agricultural workers in SA, we cannot afford to wait that long. The only way for SA to take advantage of the job-creating potential of berries is if  the government and industry work closely together to overcome the hurdles impeding access to markets in the Far East.”

Kotzé said the association had therefore written to agriculture, land reform & rural development minister Thoko Didiza to request a meeting to find solutions to these obstacles.

“We are confident that she will do whatever it takes to help us create thousands of jobs in this exciting emerging sector,” said Kotzé

phakathib@businesslive.co.za