Why South Africa imports fr…

The popularity macadamia nuts and avocado pears has become something of a double-edged sword for the farming industry in southern Africa. Macadamia thefts have surged across the region in the past five years, as have avocado thefts, particularly in South Africa. (Photos: Unsplash / Nur Afni / Unsplash / Twinsfisch / Flickr / Tatters)

Why is it so darn hard to get avocados from Tanzania into the South African market, which is burdened with the high prices of imported avos for significant periods? This is the experience of one avo farmer.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

South Africans could have been eating Tanzanian Hass avocados for the past five years, instead of the expensive imported Hass avocados from the likes of Spain and Israel. Both Mediterranean countries are a full continent away, so it takes the avos nearly a month to get from harvest to your grocery store – I suspect more, in the end. Southern Tanzania’s avos take about a week to get from harvest to distribution centres. Tanzanian fruit would be cheaper for South African consumers and it would be less travel time, which ensures freshness.

Jokes about the high prices of your store-bought fruit would disappear, and you could be giving intra-African trade an almighty boost. One of the reasons for the current high prices is that South Africa does not have a local production season from around the middle of December to the middle of March. Imported fruit is always going to be much more expensive.

So why are the Tanzanian avocados not sold to South Africans? The answer is far more complicated than you may think. The process from a completed Pest Risk Analysis (to determine if there are any pests or diseases that could be imported with the fruit) to the granting of a permit and market access takes years. Too long, in fact. For the record, the first questionnaire for market access to South Africa from Tanzania was completed in 2010.

If only government and the local industry hadn’t dragged their feet for years, you would be eating Tanzanian avocados and not Spanish ones. Not that I have anything against Spanish ones. In my eyes, an avocado is there to be enjoyed by all nationalities around the world.

Yet, although the industry in South Africa will tell you otherwise, our direct experience has been one of hostility. There has been pushback and, more recently, scrambling to present a united front of support after an upending of the proverbial (and literal) avocado cart.

At least 49.2 tons of avocados were destroyed at the border. The issue was interference by forwarding agents, we are led to believe. If the fruits had an average weight of 200g, that’s nearly 250,000 pieces destroyed. Well, they were supposedly destroyed, dumped in a no-man’s-land between Zimbabwe and South Africa. But they were more probably picked up and sold on the side of the road in South Africa

The Tanzanian plant health protection officer was at a loss. In all his career, he had never seen this happen, except for a single incident he could recall in Germany.

We at a Tanzanian agricultural company have had phone calls on Friday evenings from industry insiders acting as “friends”, saying things like: “The government is going to shut you down.” Not friendly, not supportive – even if press releases say otherwise. I get it. Perhaps they can fatten their margins. But at whose expense? That’s right, at the expense of you, the avocado eater. The industry wants to protect itself, rather than believing in the best interest of the consumer. Seems like a violation of the Competition Act to me.

Who “handles” the market on behalf of the consumer? Or are they handling it for themselves? Typically, producers of the fruit locally have access to fruit in other parts of the world, and purchase agreements, if they are a business of size and scale. They would be the well-known larger members who have their own production in South Africa. A more readily supplied local market would lead to lower prices, rather than the high costs of imported fruit.

The absence of fruit supplied by South African farmers coincides with a general shortfall across the global market. Prices for those producing at that time are generally much better than when it coincides with big volumes from Peru in June and July. Again, simple economics of supply and demand dictate a higher price when demand is generally stable and supply is short.

Fruit stolen from local producing orchards is immature; it is harvested well ahead of its reaching the acceptable harvesting standards, and will not ripen properly. Thieves take advantage of the high prices to make a quick buck. Farmers have to incur high costs for added security, high fences, private security and alarm systems.

They are subjected to losing a lot of fruit and by extension the ability to invest in the future and stimulate the local industry further.

Ironically, this thieving could be a direct result of higher prices for the imported fruit.

I feel desperate for farmers who see an increasingly large portion of their crop disappear. I feel desperate for the poor people who are themselves driven by desperation.

Again, simple economics suggest that high prices on the local market are a result of low supply. In a country like South Africa, with its high crime rates and inequality, high prices inevitably lead to thieving of the product. Similar practices take place in Mexico and in the American avocado-growing areas in California.

Added supply in the months in which the fruits are usually unavailable makes for a market that is no longer worth the risk:reward ratio for the thieves.

Or, at least, it narrows the gap significantly. The irony is that the same members of this industry cluster who are pushing back against cheaper supply would be beneficiaries.

Avos grown nearby

Who are these producers?

An army of small-scale agricultural warriors tick all the right boxes for both the environmentally conscious and the ordinary consumer. Organically grown, water-neutral, and less than a week away, this produce is far cheaper than fruit imported from the Mediterranean. There could be a supply of high-quality Hass avocados for two-thirds of the year. They are conflict-free. No high fences.

No theft from farmers. There could be real change, taking subsistence farming to the level of small-scale commercial farming.

There are no added security costs. You could walk from the road to the tree and pick the fruit, if you wanted to. But nobody does. The village community trust system is real, and it works.

It almost sounds too good to be true. But these Tanzanian avocados, grown on SA’s doorstep, are exported to Europe and the Far and Middle East. They are sold in well-known global supermarkets and grocery stores.

Tanzania has planted vast tracts of land with avocados. In this, Tanzania will in time rival their neighbour Kenya, and indeed surpass South Africa. Some of the rainfall areas of southern Tanzania have as much as 2m of rain a year, so the area is water-neutral. In other words, these great avo plantations require little to no irrigation.

The smaller scale farmers (relative to commercial farmers) live on the land and tend to their orchards and fields daily. Commercial farms in Tanzania represent a fraction of the equivalent in South Africa, maybe 6% to 8% of total production.

Land dispossession was legislated for 78 years in South Africa: black South Africans were blocked from ownership of 93% of the land in the country in which they were born until as recently as 1991, impoverishing them. Today, a lack of rural development assistance for new aspirant farmers to transform the industry has not been forthcoming.

I spoke to a black farmer in the Tzaneen area who he said he had done it all himself – no support from government and definitely not from the established agricultural industry.

This is very important in the South African context, because Tanzania has done in 15 years what South Africa could not do over the past nearly 30 years.

If you, the customer, are interested in the avocados that Tanzanian farmers could offer to South Africa for most of the year, you should demand to know from your farming industry why there are not more small-scale farmers with access to cheaper seedlings.

What’s the problem?

So why is it impossible to simply import fruit such as avos into SA? Tanzania and SA are part of a trade bloc that is supposed to have standards and norms to promote and support trade, spread services and knowledge and make it seamless to operate. This includes agriculture.

There are international plant protection protocols that are in place to protect the wildlife and agriculture of each country A 1997 treaty that falls under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), allows for each country to protect itself from importing pests and diseases into their own production areas. In order to obtain such clearance, a country has to undergo a Pest Risk Analysis. This procedure is scientific and takes time. It involves the plant health officers of both countries.

Pests and protectionism

Pests of concern that occur in Tanzania include, among others, the false coddling moth and the Asian fruit fly, both of which can destroy parts of the agricultural sector. A recent presentation from the South African Avocado Growers’ Association (Saaga), available on their website, admits that there are such pests in avocado orchards in South Africa.

In a letter, Saaga proclaimed their support for Tanzanian avocados (after a first letter decided, as an industry body and not a government, that the Tanzanian avocado was illegal), but stressed pests as their main concern. This doesn’t square up for me.

A working paper on Pest Risk Analysis norms as mandated by the IPPC says: “Like the IPPC, the WTO-SPS [Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures] states that measures must be science-based and not used for the purpose of trade protection.”

It also says: “Non-discrimination–phytosanitary measures should be applied without discrimination between countries of the same phytosanitary status. For a particular quarantine pest, phytosanitary measures should be no more stringent when applied to imported goods than measures applied to the same pest within the territory of the importing country.”

There is nothing to say that the industry should get involved after a Pest Risk Analysis has been done. This should not happen, but I have seen industry-funded bodies write import permits for the government.

The avocado industry in South Africa should not dictate to the custodians of plant health, the government, and plant health officers, what terms and conditions should be applied to fruit imports. But I have seen emails that suggest exactly that.

Contrary to the belief of some in the SA industry, fruits such as those produced in Tanzania are not of inferior quality. The CEO of a very well-known global avocado company and a member and funder of many bodies, including the South African Avocado Growers’ association, has said that the fruit is not the right quality and it is not controlled.

Yet these, ironically, are the same fruits from the same farmers who supply seeds that the major nurseries use for their trees – including the avocado growing company that this CEO works for.

South Africa had no problem granting a permit for the import of fresh avocado seed that is used in major nurseries in the country, but fresh fruit – well, that is too close to home.

It boggles the mind that South Africa is happy to use this seed, seed for the finest trees in the world, produced for the purposes of commercial farming but coming from small-scale farmers, but it finds that the same fruit, grown from the same seed by those very farmers, is inferior.

Something does not add up there.

We … have had phone calls on Friday evenings from industry insiders acting as “friends”, saying things like: “The government is going to shut you down.”

Fruit stolen from local producing orchards is immature; it is harvested well ahead of its reaching the acceptable harvesting standards, and will not ripen properly

SA had no problem granting a permit for the import of avocado seed that is used in major nurseries in the country, but fresh fruit – well, that is too close to home

California shows the way

The process of obtaining a permit to import Tanzanian avocados into the South African market has taken five years – and then some more. But it is closer than ever to reaching a conclusion.

In fact, this process started more than a decade ago, with questionnaires and detailed scientific analysis. Recently, it has been held up by lack of willingness and capacity, with sluggishness from the government, and despite a display of support from the industry. We have experienced almost the exact opposite of the support the industry is so vocal about.

It is no secret that South African farmers and exporters are trying to increase access to fresh avocado fruit, in the same way as Tanzania is attempting to do, to newer consumers globally. Those consumers are likely to be in Japan, the US, China and India.

But you cannot have it both ways. If the world knows that your country takes a tough stance on the import of regionally produced fruit, and places obstacles in its way, it is likely that the same will happen in return to South African exporters of the fruit.

South Africa should welcome the imported fruit from places such as Tanzania, in the same way that the US’s California avocado farmers ultimately accepted Mexican fruit entering into their market. Consumption went up sharply, and prices for local farmers didn’t fall.

If anything, with a readily available 12-month supply of regionally produced fresh fruit on their doorstep, demand continues to grow. The impact could be the same for local farmers.

If South Africa were to see the importation of regionally grown avocados in the same light, I think it would go a long way to reducing prices in the South African market. It does not have to be dependent on avos brought in from places that are very far away.

This would hopefully see the risk:reward ratio of the thieving of fruits reduced dramatically and, by extension, there would be a cost reduction in security and safety. The consumer and the farmers, both commercial and small scale, could all be winners. For the time being, consumers should know that they could be eating cheaper avocados – if only the obstructions could be cleared away. DM168

Sasha Naryshkine is a Netherlands-based investor who acts in various capacities for Tanzanian agricultural firm Kuza Africa.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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