Around two weeks ago there was a feeling of panic among their European clients as regional lockdowns started shutting up restaurants and hotels again, says Danwille September of Yukon International Pty Ltd, just when flower and baby veg sales had started picking up again since June.
It harkens back to the early weeks of lockdown when restaurant and catering companies’ doors shut and Yukon International's sales just plummeted.
Yukon International is, as Danwille puts it, “a specialist in difficult products”: 100% air freight of flowers, baby vegetables and exotic fruit, and it got considerably more difficult this season. Air freight is still 70 to 80% more expensive and there are still no direct flights to certain restricted countries.
Regionality of new lockdowns softens blow
Some orders from the international hotel, restaurant and catering (HoReCa) industry, a sector in which Yukon International specialises, have been abruptly cancelled but the impact of regional lockdowns has been less severe than that of the hard lockdowns of earlier the year.
Their volumes are between 20% and 30% down compared to a normal season, but the drop from the HoReCa sector is compensated for by international retail, although retail can never completely fill the gap. Increased retail sales are expected as the Northern Hemisphere enters winter (and people hopefully go back to the kitchen).
No product lines ever totally stopped throughout the season and Yukon International has been able to continue trade during every single week since Covid.
Time of the chilli
Demand for chillies went “through the roof”, Danwille says. Did it take them by surprise? “Well, it’s difficult to plan ahead when there’s 100% growth,” he laughs.
“So far we’ve been short on chillies every week. We’re a dedicated partner in chilli production with our growers, taking hands with them on the technical and ethical levels. It’s a category into which we’ve put a lot of thought over the past three years.”
Yukon International supplies green and red bird’s eye chillies, not widely grown in Europe due to its high labour requirements. They procure their chilli crop from various different production regions across the country, among them new plantings in areas with low disease pressure.
“I think more and more people have an inclination to eat spicy food. I think restaurants providing a bit of chilli on the side planted the seed for this increased demand for chillies. Also, of course, chillies are a very concentrated source of vitamin C."
Space for South African exotic fruit
Yukon International has two decades of airfreight experience with fresh produce, knowledge that would translate well, they believe, when applied to exotic fruit.
Yukon International's baby fig line
There is room for South African prickly pears to come in counter-seasonally to Italy, or South African dragonfruit to come in beside Vietnamese fruit, but it is securing a sustainable weekly supply that still remains to be worked out.
South Africa has a fair bit of passion fruit production, but to successfully compete with Colombia they’d have to provide large-sized fruit of a particular flavour profile.
“Last season we sent some passion fruit to Europe just to test whether there’s space for us and yes, there is space for us. We’re already working with a range of excellent clients for whom we’d like to build a market model where, for whatever they need, they just need to speak to one person.”
Brexit might have positive spinoffs
Brexit might just present an opportunity for South Africa to wait in the wings with supplementary produce should there be complications with UK-Europe trade.
Vegetable suppliers like Yukon International are particularly well-placed in that event, Danwille points out. “We stand ready to supply the UK and we fly directly to the UK, which will be an advantage for the range we market.”
They have over their twenty years in the industry built up a range of vegetables that can be supplied year round.
“We’re marketing a product that has been handled well, but it’s more to us than that – it comes from a production system where the people have been treated well too. South Africa is well on track in terms of where the world is heading regarding ethics and the sustainable production of food. It’s about more than the product, it’s about people too.”
Photos supplied by Yukon International