South African farmers play major role in global citrus industry

Citrus is one of the region’s top fresh produce export commodities by volume and value, in fact, after Spain, Southern Africa and Turkey compete for the position of the world’s second-largest citrus exporter in terms of volume.

Looking at the total areas planted to the major citrus varieties grown commercially in Southern Africa, Valencia leads the way at 37% (28 435ha), followed by navel at 21% (16 190ha), soft citrus (mandarins) at 17% (13 256ha), lemons and limes at 15% (11 909ha), and grapefruit at 10% (7 886ha).

“Compared with many other agricultural commodities grown in Southern Africa, the total of 77 676ha planted to commercial citrus is relatively small. But the region’s citrus production is highly intensive in terms of input, yield and economic return,” said Dr Vaughan Hattingh, CEO of Citrus Research International.

According to Hattingh, older Valencia orange varieties have traditionally been used for juicing, but newer varieties are now better suited for fresh consumption. Navel, especially on international markets, remains popular as a freshly consumed fruit.

While the volume of Southern Africa’s annual orange exports has remained fairly stable (between 900 000 tons and 1,1 million tons) over the past decade, the gross rand value per ton of exports has climbed significantly, from approximately R3 400/t in 2008 to nearly R9 000/t in 2017.

“Soft citrus is seen as a more modern product,” Hattingh said. “It’s popular among consumers because it’s easy to peel and eat fresh, and has a flavour that’s attractive to children.

“International demand for soft citrus is growing strongly, and Southern Africa’s exports have grown accordingly from around 110 000 tons (gross value of R5 000/t) in 2008 to 200 000 tons (gross value of R13 500/t) in 2017. There has also been strong development of new soft citrus cultivars.”

Grapefruit, in contrast, is among the “older and more traditional components of citrus”.

Consumers tend to be mostly adults, so it is an ongoing challenge for Southern Africa’s growers and exporters to maintain demand for the fruit.

Despite this, the region’s total annual grapefruit exports of between 190 000 tons and 200 000 tons have been fairly stable since 2008. After dropping from nearly R4 000/t in 2008 to R2 000/t in 2009, the gross export value has again climbed steadily to nearly R8 000/t in 2017.

Lemons, too, have seen a growth in volume.

“In recent years there has been a major increase in plantings of lemon orchards in Southern Africa,” said Hattingh. “This has been driven largely by the significant annual increase in international prices for this fruit.

“In 2008, the region exported about 140 000 tons of lemons and limes at a gross value of R4 000/t. In 2016, the industry exported about 225 000 tons of lemons and limes at a gross value of nearly R17 000/t. Last year, the exports were around 280 000 tons of these citrus varieties, but the gross value dropped to just over R13 000/t.”He added that suppliers are greatly concerned about the need to avoid oversupplying the market.

Approximately 76% of all southern Africa’s citrus is exported as fresh fruit. These exports generate 92% of the total income achieved by the region’s citrus growers.

In comparison, only 18% of Southern Africa’s total commercial citrus production is processed into value-added products, and a mere 6% of this total production is sold as fresh citrus on the local market.

According to Hattingh, this shows that the country’s commercial citrus growing industry is “absolutely dependent” on export markets for its profitability. So, if the supply to these markets is jeopardised in any way, this could directly affect citrus growers.

The industry, he added, has a history of ready global market access. Europe remains its largest market, taking about 37% of its citrus exports. This is followed by the Middle East (23%) and Southeast Asia (15%), with Russia, the UK, North America and others each buying between 5% and 10% of the region’s citrus exports. Some of these existing markets, particularly Asia, have the potential to grow significantly.

Hattingh said that the pursuit of international markets can be seen in terms of gaining, retaining and optimising access. It should be kept in mind that the first major step is for the the exporting and importing countries to conduct a pest risk analysis (PRA) as per Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines.

Unfortunately, due to the huge exchange and analysis of information involved in a PRA, the process typically takes between five and 15 years to complete successfully.

This is part one of a summerised version of a presentation given aboard the MSC Sinfonia during Larvrld ASgrichem’s 2018 Seil-Safari.

Hattingh can be contacted on 013-759-8000 or