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Potatoes. Picture: HAI NGUYEN/UNSPLASH
Potatoes. Picture: HAI NGUYEN/UNSPLASH

Millions of dollars worth of vegetables/tubers/roots are traded across the world annually. SA is among the leading exporters from Africa, especially potatoes, tomatoes, onions and carrots.  

According to data from the World Trade Organisation, the UN Conference on Trade & Development and the International Trade Centre, SA’s vegetable export earnings decreased by 7.6% in 2023 to $190m, from $206m in 2022, the lowest level in at least seven years. There was a $17.2m decrease from the previous five-year average of $207m.  

This decline was expected given challenges such as export prohibitions by major Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) markets and lower domestic output for several vegetables in late 2022 and early 2023.  

Africa remained SA’s leading market in 2023, accounting for 69% of the value of all vegetable exports (compared with 65% in 2022). Leading vegetables exported to the African market were potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce.  

SA’s vegetable exports are largely sent to Sacu plus Mozambique (Sacu+M) countries. Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, SA and Mozambique form the expanded bloc. In 2020, Sacu+M accounted for 60% of SA’s vegetable exports, but this dropped to 54% in 2023 because of the export bans. 

Mozambique is by far the biggest African market for SA vegetables, accounting for 33% of total exports in 2023, up from 30% in 2022, followed by Namibia (15%), Botswana (11%), Lesotho (11%), Eswatini (11%) and Zimbabwe (9%).  

The EU accounted for 22% of exports in 2023, ranking as the second-largest market. Pumpkins, squash, gourds, onions, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus and eggplant were the top exports.  

The top 10 EU countries that import SA vegetables, tubers or roots all saw increases in 2023. Among them were Portugal (1.2%), Greece (1.5%), Spain (1.4%), Germany (1.4%), Ireland (3.7%), Romania (5.4%) and Greece (1.5%). Nonetheless, the Netherlands, UK and Italy continue to be the most significant European markets for SA. 

Asia and the Middle East ranked third at 8%. Top exports to Asia and the Middle East were dried beans, shelled chickpeas, pigeon beans, shelled peas and shelled cow peas. At 1% of SA’s vegetable exports, the Americas were the country’s fourth-largest market for SA in 2023.  

Export earnings for several top vegetables decreased in 2023. For example, dried legumes (beans and peas) decreased by 24.7% from the previous year, while cucumbers, potatoes, cabbage and tomatoes decreased by 16.2%, 9.2%, 4.1% and 3.9%, respectively.  

Due to the export bans, SA vegetable exports to Botswana, a major market, were down 58.4% from the five-year average of $26m at $14m in 2023. Similarly, exports to Namibia fell 26.1% from the five-year average of $20m to $19m in 2023. However, the current El Niño-related climate issues affecting the region may result in Southern African countries having to import more vegetables from SA, especially if domestic production rebounds in 2024.

Reduced domestic supply could have contributed significantly to SA’s overall decline in vegetable export revenue in 2023. The availability of popular exportable vegetable/roots/tubers such as potatoes and onions was restricted in 2023, resulting in sharp increases in vegetable prices, which were between 30% and 50% higher nationwide for most of the year.  

Seamless trading is essential for improved trade within the continent and across the bloc. The prolonged use of non-tariff measures at the Sacu level may make it more difficult to increase intra-African commerce and may create obstacles to economic growth and poverty reduction.  

The bans imposed by some Sacu members, which are now spreading to other countries — Lesotho is the most recent example — have negative spillover effects on producers in SA, as well as consumers in countries that impose trade restrictions. For this reason, these export bans are against Sacu rules and are detrimental to trade flows as they set a negative precedent for the trade aspirations of both the bloc and the continent.  

Sacu and all African decisionmakers need to take trade 101 into account. Research and experience over many years has shown that export restrictions are more detrimental than beneficial. SA’s open trade policies have led to its success in trade on a continental and international level. Its neighbours ought to follow suit to have more competitive agricultural sectors.  

Meanwhile, SA vegetable exports to other countries, especially those in the EU, Asia and the Middle East, are positive steps towards a more diversified market. This is especially important considering the instability of its main African vegetable markets, particularly those of its neighbours. 

• Nkunjana and Sotsha are senior economists in the trade research unit at the National Agricultural Marketing Council. They write on their personal capacities. 

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