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

SA’s booming berry industry is set to record phenomenal growth in the next five years, with the area planted projected to increase more than 80% by 2025.

The number of hectares of blueberries in particular will rise 136% in Limpopo and 102% in Mpumalanga.

Agricultural economist Nina Viljoen set out the findings of her survey at the SA Berry Producers Association annual general meeting (AGM) on Friday.

A significant attribute of SA’s blueberry varieties is their versatility, enabling production in virtually any part of the country. So the government and industry can target high-unemployment areas for increased production, the berry association said. Industry players say the blueberry sector also offers the highest wages in the fruit sector, ranging from 15% to 26% above the minimum wage.

Labour intensive

The industry is labour intensive and employs three or four workers a hectare. It is also looking to gain access to Asian markets, saying this could create  12,000 more jobs in SA, increasing the industry’s projected employment numbers in 2023 to 26,000. 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.

On Friday, Jean Kotzé, chair of the SA Berry Producers Association, said the growth figures announced at the AGM demonstrated the potential of the berry sector to contribute to the Treasury’s goal of growing agricultural exports by R6bn over the next 10 years.

“But to achieve this goal, the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development must prioritise market access,” said Kotzé.

“Unfortunately, the SA market access protocol is creating an environment where the various SA fruit commodities are competing with each other, when in fact their real competitors are countries like Chile and Peru. We need to get more organised as a producing nation.”

Kotzé said the only way for SA to benefit from the job-creating potential of the agriculture sector is for government and industry to work together to fast-track access to markets in the Far East.

“The SA Berry Producers’ Association is committed to working with minister (Thoko) Didiza and her department (agriculture, land reform and rural development) to find solutions to the market access bottleneck and unleash the full potential of the berry industry in SA.”

Kotzé  said the processing of export protocols meant that it took from 12 to 17 years for one commodity to gain access to one market. At this rate, SA blueberries would gain access to the Chinese market only in 2045.