Peak of drought's effect now evident as volumes are still low

Banana imports to South Africa increased by 867% over past 3 years

“It’s shaping up to be a nice season,” reports banana farmer Blaine Peckham from the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Banana Association, “but what must be remembered is that the current crop was initiated about 12 months ago, during the drought. I’d say the peak of the drought’s effect is only becoming visible now.” 

In Mpumalanga province and Mozambique, volumes are also down. “The effect of the drought will be with us for at least another year, assuming of course that from here on, we get good rain as the dam levels are still very low. Where we usually get a bunch every 11 months, it now takes 14 months because the plants grow slower under water-stressed conditions,” says Joachim Prinsloo who farms in the Nelspruit area.

While bunches carry fewer fruit due to the drought, the individual fruits aren't smaller than usual. "We're at about 65% of where we were two years ago," Prinsloo adds.

Banana growers are getting very good prices on the local open market, about R160 (€10.96) per 18kg carton for medium class 1, R180 (€12.33) to R200 (€13.70) for large (190mm) class 1 and R200 (€13.70) to R220 (€15.07) for extra large (220mm) class 1 bananas.

Last year banana imports increased sharply, peaking at 9,837,697kg during the summer month of December from a low of 2,777,362kg during March 2016. Before 2012 there were no banana imports at all but the figures speak for themselves: for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 the volumes, in tonnes, of banana imports rose from 7,931 to 24,302 to 76,712 – an 867% increase in banana imports over the past three years.

Ecuadorian bananas on South African supermarket shelves

Supermarket groups have started importing bananas as a response to lower local production volumes, for instance from Dole in Ecuador. These bananas are markedly larger than those grown in South Africa, although both are of the Williams variety, due to its tropical provenance. However, there are reports of consumers being unhappy at the price of imported bananas as well as its quality. Fruit imports (primarily bananas) from Ecuador climbed from 50t in 2015 to 1,821t last year.

Fruit imports from Mozambique were a mere 11t in 2002; it jumped to 76t in 2003 to 1 992t the next year and has since somersaulted to the position of top fruit exporter to South Africa: 84 284t in 2016, somewhat down from a high of 100 802t in 2014.

And interestingly, South Africa never used to import any fruit from Côte d’Ivoire but that changed last year when the country imported 171t to supplement local banana supply.

In December 2016 South Africa recorded a trade deficit in bananas of US$4,058,000 (€3,71 million), which forms part of a larger trend of trade deficits in the South African economy (over all sectors there was a deficit of R2.92bn or €200 million last year).

South Africa exports a small amount of bananas to its neighbours like Namibia and Zimbabwe.

About eight years ago South African banana farmers started diversifying their enterprises across the border to Mozambique and today about half of the bananas for sale at the Pretoria fresh produce market hail from Mozambique, estimates Flip de Lange of Subtropico.

According to Joachim Prinsloo, president of the Banana Growers’ Association of South Africa, there are twelve South African banana farmers in the south of the country, some of whose production is wholly for the Mozambican market. Elsewhere in Mozambique, like Chokwe and Nampula in the north, there are other foreign-owned banana farms with substantial expansions of banana production on the cards.

While labour costs and electricity costs are lower in Mozambique and the climate more tropical than South Africa’s subtropical banana production areas, productivity is lower and transport costs to the fresh produce markets as well as packaging, imported from South Africa, push up production costs to a level where Prinsloo says it costs about the same to produce bananas in South Africa and Mozambique.

The expectation from the local industry is that volumes will only start recovering in February next year and that there might be an oversupply in two year’s time. It remains to be seen whether banana imports will be adapted to these changes to the local banana market. 

Regarding the dreaded banana bunchy top virus, the disease appears to be spreading from northern KwaZulu-Natal, according to Peckham. “The Natal farmers are really doing their best, one should give them credit for trying to contain the spread of the disease, and the Department of Forestry, Agriculture and Fisheries are working well with the industry, they provide sound technical knowledge,” says Prinsloo.

For more information:
Blaine Peckham
Southern KwaZulu-Natal Banana Association
Tel: +27 83 463 0681

Joachim Prinsloo
Banana Growers’ Association of South Africa
Tel: +27 82 410 4290

Flip de Lange
Tel: +27 83 450 2900

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