Picture: CHRISTOPHER BOSWELL
Picture: CHRISTOPHER BOSWELL

For the Citrus Growers’ Association of SA (CGA and its 1,400 growers, 2020 has been an extremely stressful and exhausting, but at the same time highly rewarding and educational year. The start of our citrus season coincided with the government’s declaration of a national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown brought most of the country to an standstill, except for a few sectors that were declared essential, including the agricultural industry.

As a sector we recognised that this crisis was unprecedented and there was no blueprint we could follow to see our way through the season. However, we also acknowledged that we were extremely privileged to be allowed to continue operating during the lockdown and our industry committed to doing what we could to fulfil our responsibility of contributing towards the country’s food security. With the citrus season having come to a close, we now have the opportunity to take stock and consider what we have learnt and achieved over the past few months.

From the start, the association recognised that strong leadership was needed to successfully navigate the pandemic and lockdown. It was also critical that we remained agile, ensured decisions were made quickly and decisively and that any risks that could affect the export season were dealt with immediately. Open and ongoing communication with growers and stakeholders was also crucial. While face-to-face meetings were disrupted, we needed to embrace new communication technologies and ensure that we provided accurate and reliable information timeously to the industry.

As a result, we established the CGA Covid-19 response committee to co-ordinate the industry’s response to the pandemic, which was forecast to reach its peak at the height of the citrus season. The committee held 20 meetings in total between April and August and developed a risk assessment and action template to identify the degrees of risk across different value chain links in the industry and to come up with responses to these challenges.

The most immediate priority was to safeguard the health and safety of workers across the citrus value chain. Workers becoming infected with Covid-19 could also result in harvesting, pack houses cold stores and shipping terminals closing down. This risk increased as the rate of Covid-19 infections spread from the Western Cape to other provinces.

Other risks that were identified included: citrus not being pre-cleared for export markets due to inspectors falling ill and overseas markets being halted; restrictions on the movement of seasonal workers between provinces to harvest and pack citrus fruit; a shortage of containers that were stuck in other overseas ports and disruptions to logistics chains, which would result in citrus building up in cold stores and the free flow of cargo being halted. Another major risk was a reduction in staffing at the SA ports due to the lockdown, which had a serious impact on port operations. Lockdowns in other countries across the world also meant there was a lot of uncertainty over whether the demand for citrus in our overseas markets would be negatively affected.   

To ensure industry stakeholders could access credible information on Covid-19 developments 44 memos were drafted and distributed to more than 3,000 stakeholders between April and July 2020. The association also prepared and distributed regular market reports to the industry.

It also became clear that growers and packhouses needed guidance on what protocols to implement to ensure the health and safety of their staff. The association and Citrus Academy therefore developed two sets of guidelines — for the workplace and for the transportation of workers — that were distributed to members. Government also required all businesses to have Covid-19 compliance officers as the lockdown eased. The Citrus Academy developed a Covid-19 compliance officer training manual and trained over 300 compliance officers in the industry.

One of the most positive outcomes of the pandemic was the closer relationship that developed between the CGA and government departments, at all levels. This was largely due a steering committee being established comprising the government and the agricultural sector soon after the lockdown was announced in March. The association has been a proactive and constructive member of this committee, where we have raised all issues impacting the citrus industry. We have also had meetings with public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel on issues negatively impacting citrus exports, including challenges at the ports. These engagements also highlighted longer-term deficiencies at the country’s ports, which are now being addressed.

We also used the crisis as an opportunity to build stronger relationships with provincial governments in the four largest citrus growing provinces namely, Limpopo, the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape and Mpumalanga. We are confident these new partnerships will continue post the pandemic.

With the Covid-19 national lockdown having a devastating impact on thousands of livelihoods, the association quickly decided to provide assistance by facilitating the delivery of surplus citrus to communities most in need. In excess of 1,600 tonnes of citrus have been distributed to families across the country, through the association’s Orange Heart Fruit Drive initiative. In addition, many packhouses and growers distributed citrus, food parcels and other donations to the communities they operate in. We plan to continue the Orange Heart Fruit Drive in 2021 and beyond.

Overall, the proactive steps taken to address risks as they arose and the closer partnerships we have formed with the government and other stakeholders has meant that our industry has emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic stronger and more resilient than before.

The outbreak has also resulted in an increased demand for citrus across our export markets, as people have turned to vitamin C to boost their immune systems, which means we expect another record-breaking export season this year. With the Covid-19 pandemic expected to extend into 2021, the CGA remains committed to proactively working with growers and our partners, including the government, so the industry continues contributing to job creation and inclusive economic growth in the country.

• Chadwick is CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association of Southern Africa.

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