Delegates from seventeen countries attended the OZblu grower’s conference at Nyami Berries in Mooinooi, South Africa’s Northwest Province, to receive this take-away: “It’s very simple. All markets are growing.”
Blueberries from the Southern Hemisphere plus Mexico reached 230,000 tonnes during the 2017/18 season, a 25% increase on the previous year. A forecast for the next four years sets a further growth of 59% for the hemisphere and for South Africa an expected 60% growth. Peru has had a spectacular season, with its export volumes 75% up from 2016/17, a growth trend set at 33% for the coming four years.
“The logic in the industry has changed completely and what we had in the past regarding supply, is not valid any longer,” says Andrés de Witt of LaFrut, Chile. “Blueberries are now grown on all continents, in the North and South, winter and summer, which means massive availability and a flattened supply. Blueberries from the Southern Hemisphere have pretty much doubled over the past four years. When is that going to happen again?”
Roger Horak, OZblu founder and Global CEO (pictured with OZblu breeder Dave Mazzardis on his left
), looks to table grapes for ideas on how to differentiate within the blueberry category. “A minimum level of crunch and minimum brix is going to become the standard. At OZblu we want to become the Crimson Seedless of blueberries. Crimson Seedless defines the red grape category, it never disappoints. We want to be recognised as the benchmark in the blueberry category. The onus is on us to convince retailers that we can deliver on that promise.”
The biggest weakness of fruit generally, he continues, is variability. “At OZblu we have a distinct advantage because we have a very long range of unbelievable varieties. OZ Bonita [OZblu variety 9-12] from Peru tastes the same as an OZ Bonita in Perth which tastes the same as an OZ Bonita in South Africa. This allows us to brand the same variety, produced from different regions under one brand whilst delivering a quality and consistent eating experience to the end consumer - everything as OZblu.”
“Sea freight improves our varieties”
OZblu has made a pleasant discovery of its varieties, the work of Australia-based Dave and Leasa Mazzardis, during the past season: sea freight improves their berries, and customer feedback confirmed this. “We were expecting the berries to be consistent, but we didn’t expect them to be better when they arrive on the other side, which was the constant message from our customers,” says Roger Horak. He continues: “Air freight is absolutely dead. If your fruit cannot make the journey, you’re not going to make it.”
United Exports, marketer of OZblu, therefore employs air freight to a far smaller degree than other South African blueberry exporters. Their berries are sent in perforated bags, not employing MA or CA technology, for which the necessity has disappeared due to the shelf life inherent to their varieties.
Etienne Kok and Alex Muchazondida of United Exports
Chilean blueberry industry in need of varietal renewal
Chile, the world’s second largest blueberry producer after the USA, is facing a “massive” challenge, according to Andrés de Witt of LaFrut, Chile, who spoke at the conference. The Chilean industry is based on Northern Highbush and Rabbiteye varieties developed twenty to thirty years ago for the US market, not for long distance export trade. Increasingly, in the face of stiff competition from, among others, Mexico and Peru, the Chilean industry has come to realise that the softness of their berries is a weakness.
“Twenty percent of the varieties in Chile are obsolete,” declares Andrés de Witt, “and of the remaining 80%, a good 60% will need to be changed within the next five years.”
“Chile developed the sea freight industry, we’ve got a lot to thank them for, but that explains why we, as the custodian of the varieties, are sometimes so difficult – we’ve seen what happened to Chile,” Horak notes. “As Andrés says, they’ve been slow to change and many varieties are fast becoming obsolete.”
Wen Zhang, Shu Yao and Ge Quan of Shaanxi Haisheng at the conference
Chinese consumer has instant power over category success
“In China, way more than any other country, people live on their phones. They’re shopping on their mobile devices and an online trader was telling me how the most important thing for his supply was brand and quality, because the huge advantage on these platforms [like WeChat] is that you’re delivering straight to the customer, but they actually have people who do a final pre-sorting prior to delivery, because if you deliver a poor product, and the customer puts a thumbs-down on their purchase, he says your sales plummet. As simple as that. If they put a thumbs-up on a product, he said you can open the golden doors, it’s absolutely amazing," says Horak, who opened the conference by reminding growers that OZblu blueberries achieved 1.6 to 2 times more than the average daily market price in China this past season.
"The Chinese customer will pay for it if it’s good, but if it’s not good, you’re gonna get smashed.”
Shu Yao of the Haisheng Group, the world’s leading producer of apple juice concentrate, told the conference that China’s current blueberry production of 40,000 tonnes was far below the market demand of 1.1 million tonnes.
Bloom on a blueberry is highly prized in the Chinese market, something that OZblu is actively breeding for. Another pleasant surprise for them was that Chinese buyers have started specifically asking for OZ Julieta. A UK retailer has told Horak that OZ Julieta was the best sea freight blueberry they’d ever tasted. “OZ Julieta is right in the sweet spot we’re trying to hit.”
Very significant volume increase to the UK
In the UK OZblu’s aspirations are in the top and standard plus side of the category. The overall fruit category in the UK is flat in terms of market growth, but with blueberries there is 7.7% market growth, as a result of larger purchases per trip (bigger pack sizes) and premium varieties and brands. A further increase of 30% in UK blueberry sales is “hugely achievable”, says Duncan Forbes, commercial director at United Exports.
UK blueberry consumers are year-round consumers, while European consumers (particularly Italians) are still more seasonal in their berry consumption habits, which is of relevance to South African growers providing them with counter-seasonal berries. The company expects volumes to Germany to come close to UK volumes over the next couple of years, while the blueberry turnover increase in the Netherlands is 26%. Scandinavian markets consume large volumes of blueberries, as do Russians and some other Eastern European countries.
As for the organic segment, strong in Scandinavia and resurgent in the US, OZblu is developing varieties and looking for suitable production areas in South Africa. “We don’t want just a little corner of organic on a farm, we want to do it to the same standard as everything else,” Horak says.
Regarding the South African market, OZblu is certain it will be able to provide blueberries year-round, as desired by retailers. In 2016, OZblu provided retailers with 252 tonnes of blueberries, while last year it was 348 tonnes, a year-on-year growth of some 38% of quality new varietal blueberries, despite the domestic market being flooded with older varieties that are no longer as attractive for export markets.
“What we’re doing here in South Africa on the varietal side of things will have a positive impact on South African consumers and the actual flavour of the South African fruit, whether it’s for the local market or, indeed, export. South African blueberries are in a different tier to what customers and clients can get from Peru and Argentina,” notes Duncan Forbes.
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