The South African fig export industry, barely a decade old, is expanding, with domestic demand also showing improvement as a result of the so-called “foodie” culture. It is a difficult fruit to export because it spoils easily: it needs to be picked at the optimal time (at 85 to 90% ripeness for export) and requires a very secure cold chain, with no fluctuations in temperature, such as fruit at fresh produce markets typically experience when they are moved out of cold storage to the display floor and back again.
The South African export firm moving the largest volumes of figs is Star South, which exported 450t of figs last year (60% to the UK and the balance to the EU, Canada, Middle and Far East). According to Danel van Deventer, logistics manager for figs at Star South, last year they marketed a further 100t as fresh fruit locally and 10t for processing, such as fig preserve (very popular in South Africa) and drying. A lot of the fruit is sold at roadside farm stalls and farmer’s markets in the Western Cape and therefore the volume consumed locally is unknown.
Average yields in the Western Cape as well as in the Northwest Province are 3 to 4t per hectare.
The South African fig industry’s commercialisation is widely credited to Keith Wilson. He visited Turkey to investigate their fig production but any export of their propagation material was prohibited. In southeastern France he visited the famous fig nursery of Pierre Baud, from whom he acquired all of the varieties that today make up South Africa’s fig industry: the bite-sized Ronde de Bordeaux fig and Bourjassotte Noire, known as Evita or Parisian in South Africa. Cultivars like Tangier, Deanna and King are planted to a lesser degree, supplemented by old varieties like Old Cape White figs and Adams figs, only for local consumption as it's too soft for export, and White Genoa and Kadota for the purposes of making fig preserves.
The South African fig harvest is currently a third to halfway through. Ronde de Bordeaux is harvested from week 52 to week 8 while the Bourjassotte Noire (Evita/Parisian) harvest started about a month ago and extends to weeks 18 to 20.
Ronde de Bordeaux weighs about 20g and it is marketed for its petite size. Dutch retailer Albert Heijn, which carried some this season, markets it as “baby vijgen”.
“South Africa is the only country in the world where Ronde de Bordeaux is grown commercially, something which struck a chord with Pierre Baud when he visited the country. His father was a fig farmer and he always throught that Ronde de Bordeaux had commercial potential. He was ahead of his time,” explains Wilson. Wilson is currently involved in trials with Ronde de Bordeaux on 4ha in Ethiopia and 5ha in Egypt, which seems promising.
However, smaller fruits require more labour to pick and make up volumes, which factors into Ronde de Bordeaux production costs in South Africa. Wilson reckons that growing the fruit in a country with lower labour costs, like Ethiopia, makes it an economically viable proposition.
Fruit size is a hurdle
The main challenge to South African fig farmers is fruit size. Hanro Knoetzen of Eikenhof in Porterville, Western Cape, concurs that winds dry out the fruit and reduce the size. Porterville is one of the hubs of South African fig production. Knoetzen mentions that fig quality seems better when it is misty. Keith Wilson is of the opinion that if South African growers could grow figs with an average weight of 50g, their earnings could be many times higher. Given climatic conditions in South Africa, more akin to North Africa and with a lower atmospheric humidity than European Mediterranean regions, growers attain smaller sizes with the same cultivars than their European counterparts.
The largest commercial fig is the Bursa black fig from Turkey, a fig which is unique to the city of Bursa and cultivation is restricted to its region of origin. Koos Lötter, retired lecturer in horticultural science at the University of Stellenbosch, is of the opinion that Bourjassotte Noire is still the best large dark fig available to South African growers.
Fruit size can be improved by thinning out the figs in December, but some farmers are, by that stage, already harvesting Ronde de Bordeaux and therefore prefer to allocate labour resources to picking rather than thinning out.
The United Kingdom is the traditional export market for South African fruit growers, and feedback that Star South has received from UK fig marketers is that figs are one of the very few commodities still growing in the British market; because a fig is so versatile in sweet as well as savoury dishes. Star South’s Van Deventer confirms that there is a definite increase in the volumes exported to all markets.
However, not all growers are so keen on the British market since Brexit and the weakening of the British pound. Willem van der Merwe of Dasklip, Porterville, is very pleased with his move to Dutch retailer Albert Heijn. “I sent 99% of my Ronde de Bordeaux to Holland and I’ll send the rest of my harvest, which is Evita, to the UK and the East.” Knoetzen, also of Porterville, agrees that the prices for figs in the UK are lower than they used to be. He sends approximately 70% of his harvest to the local market through Freshmark (Checkers) and Woolworths.
“As our trees mature and yield improves, we’ll need new markets in future,” says Valerian van der Byl of Fairfield Farm, outside Napier. “I think the United Kingdom will remain a strong market for us but there’s increased buying power in the Far East. We also try to grow the local market. A fifty-fifty split between export and local markets is our ideal.”
According to Jan Eksteen of Uitkijk Farm in Paarl, which hosts an annual fig festival at the start of April, there is definite growth in demand for figs, driven by the Western Cape’s strong restaurant and hospitality industry.
Figs, like cherries and blueberries, are these days also cultivated in the North West Province. Stef Papendorf of Hillcrest Boerdery started 8 years ago with 6ha of Adams figs for the local market. He has also recognised the potential of the South African fig export industry: "I have planted 1 400 Deanna trees and plan to expand with another 1 500 Evita trees for exporting."
For more information:
Danel van Deventer
Tel: +27 21 864 3655
Tel: +27 82 416 9409
Tel: +27 82 324 8372
Tel: +27 14 523 5100
Willem van der Merwe
Tel: +27 83 232 5131