The South African lychee season, slightly delayed, has opened with early varieties like the locally-bred Early Delight as well as Chinese varieties like Three Months Red and Haak Yip. The earliest lychees were already harvested in September in the Malelane (Mpumalanga Province) area.
First volumes of the dominant variety of Mauritius are expected to start coming in this week from Malelane and Komatipoort, running until before Christmas. As a result of the many overcast days over the past few weeks, growth has slowed down somewhat, which could have an effect on sizing, but it's been positive for fruit set as well as preventing sunburn. At the moment lychees are in short supply but within a week or two as volumes pick up, price on the different sizes could start diverging more sharply.
“It’s going to be an average year,” says Bobby Price, chairperson of the South African Litchi Growers’ Association (SALGA). “The effect of the drought is still with us, so we expect lower volumes compared to last year. We did have good rains at the right time.”
In Komatipoort, Frik Joubert, former chairperson of SALGA, reports that flowering was average due to climatic conditions. “We had rain in May and then we had a warm winter, so the plants didn’t experience stress and vegetative growth was stimulated at the expense of fruiting. On the other hand, quality looks very good this year.”
Last year’s lychee crop came to 9,801t of which 4,909t were exported, primarily to Europe (particularly the Dutch market), the UK and Canada, rounded out by slight volumes to Dubai and the USA. A fresh produce airfreight forwarder told FreshPlaza that there has been scant demand for lychees from the UK and the Middle East thus far, with most of the lychees they’re handling, being flown to Paris.
The lychee industry has been a victim of the success of avocados and macadamias, with acreage more than halving over the past decade, but remaining stable at the moment, including one or two new plantings.
“Bright future for lychees in South Africa”
Bobby Price remains upbeat about the prospects of lychee production in South Africa, which competes with Madagascar on a quite empty market. “I think it’s a very positive crop, there’s a bright future for it. There’s still a robust market for our lychees. Once prices stabilise for avocados and macadamias, farmers are going to start putting in lychees again. From SALGA’s side there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes to expand to new markets, for instance the USA.”
Most of the South African lychee crop is exported, with the season running from about week 45 to weeks 7 or 8, a relay between the production regions of Malelane/Komatipoort, then Nelspruit and finally Tzaneen. Nelspruit comes in with their lychees from around Christmas until mid-January, with Tzaneen ending in February. The crop has a very short shelf life; within 24 hours after picking it has to be on its way to the markets.
A significant portion of the harvest (more than 3,500t during the 2016/17 season) is sent for processing, with relatively low volumes reaching South African consumers, about 1,300t last season, much to their chagrin, for the lychee is a well-loved fruit locally.
Lychee breeding programme
SALGA has been running a lychee breeding programme in partnership with the Agricultural Research Council’s Tropical and Subtropical Crops division in Nelspruit for many years, to develop cultivars with which to diversify the industry. “Mauritius will always be our base variety but our belief is that we have to get the cultivar balance right,” says Bobby Price. Early Delight, whose fruit does have some problems with splitting, is a product of the programme.
For more information:
South African Litchi Growers’ Association (SALGA)
Tel: +27 13 753 5760