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South Africa: chilli prices hit a seven year high

Chilli prices have reached a seven year high in South Africa after a long slump. In KwaZulu-Natal a 15kg bag fetches between R800 (48 euros) to R950 (57 euros) while a farmer of high quality and well-packaged chillies can now obtain as much as R140 (8.4 euros) for a 2kg bag.

Chilli prices haven’t been this good since 2011 when frost hit chilli production hard. Many farmers pulled out of chillies but dedicated chilli farmers have stuck with it. In Gauteng average prices are R75 to R80 (4.5 to 4.8 euros) for a bag ranging from 2kg to 2.5kg, a price expected to hold for another month or so, before bigger volumes start coming in. Last year prices never rose above R60 (3.6 euros) per bag.

A 1kg box of the popular Chisa chilli, a bird's eye F1 hybrid

“After prices that went as low as R10 per kilogram [0.6 euros] over the past couple of years, many farmers decided they were over chillies,” a farmer who focuses on chillies tells FreshPlaza. “After this year I think they’re going to change their mind.” 

Supply is usually short this time of year, but what makes it even more of a seller’s market this season, according to a seed merchant, is the cost of labour. “It can cost up to R200,000 [12,000 euros] to cultivate one hectare of capsicums and when a farmer spends that much money on a pepper or a chilli planting and it comes to the end of the sum, the labour costs to pick one kilogram of produce becomes a deciding factor. One kilogram of peppers is roughly four peppers compared to 35 chillies and with the time taken, chillies will lose the toss. Hence the lack of chillies planted this winter season.” He also mentions that at the time when vegetable farmers were deciding on planting schedules, the minimum wage legislation was amended.

It is difficult for a single worker to pick more than 50kg per day, making chilli production particularly labour-intensive. At prices lower than R20 (1.2 euro) per kilogram, producers battle to make ends meet.

Nurseries report that they definitely see an increase in interest in chillies, specifically from black farmers who pick the chillies green, then cut down the bushes for a second year of cropping, thereby reducing input costs, and they’re doing well with the crop.

The increase in popularity of Mexican and Asian cuisine is driving demand, with a number of restaurateurs sourcing their chillies directly from farmers. Some supermarkets source chillies from Mozambique this time of the year.

Chisa chilli 
One of the most popular chillies is the so-called chisa chilli (from the isiXhosa word for ‘burn’), a bird’s eye type hybrid, but with better characteristics than the traditional small bird’s eye: it provides a consistently high yield, its Scoville units remain stable (it ranks alongside Habañero) and it is larger, about 65 to 70mm in summer (slightly smaller in winter). The sellers of chisa chilli seed are reticent to reveal the provenance of this hybrid, but seedling nurseries report a high demand for it.

Chisa 'Brite Lites', suitable for traffic light packaging

Other popular varieties for commercial planting is the Thai type, which is about 115mm long, narrower and less pointed, the Jalapeño chilli and the Serrano chilli. There is a niche market for Habañero chillies.

The South African chilli market is small and traditional, looking for a dark green or red chilli of medium size. “It has taken nearly twenty years for the South African consumer to change from the old Cayenne Long Slim variety to varieties bred by large overseas companies. It will take another twenty plus years to get them to understand our chilli market is not worth breeding for. Indian seed houses sell chilli seed by the tonne. We sell here by the gram,” says a chilli seed merchant.

Habañero chillies at the market

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