Last season 34 containers of South African litchis arrived at Port Newark Container Terminal, with a further 60,000 cartons flown in to Newark and New Orleans: more than a fourfold increase in litchi exports to the United States over the year prior.
“The conditions of importation as required by the USDA makes it challenging, but very exciting at the same time to be tested on our resourcefulness."
Right: Dennis Cohen and Ben Halliday, 2015
"South African farmers are known for their determination, along with our high quality product,” remarks Ben Halliday, technical director at Agrilink, a fresh produce exporter specialising in airfreight; along with the late Dennis Cohen, Ben has been a pioneer of the US litchi export programme.
“Litchis remain a delicate product, and the period from harvest to the end consumer is longer than when sending to Europe.”
At the recent Subtrop symposium for the subtropical industry, Agrilink director Bernd Julicher told attendees more about “the wonderful rollercoaster ride” in conceptualizing and executing litchi exports to the USA.
The business had been 100% airfreight until 2020 when Covid obliged them to turn to seafreight. Now they kick off with airfreight to supply receivers as early as they can (give or take by around 20 November, weather permitting) until the first container vessel arrives.
US market offers price resilience, unlike Europe
The European Union is logistically and geographically South Africa’s traditional go-to market, but it is fundamentally different to trading litchis within the United States.
Right: Cornel van der Merwe of Komati and Deon Swartz of Riverside Farm saw the potential of US trade from the start
“In Europe originally four, now five origins (the new one being Mozambique) compete for market share in Europe during that period. Dominating all of this is Madagascar which has biggest volumes by far. The rule of the race is trying to get into Europe before the first Malagasy boat gets in. Depending on how successfully Malagasy volumes land, are distributed and successfully sold, or not successfully sold, determine to a large extent South Africa’s price success within the season as the bulk of South Africa’s volumes arrive after Madagascar,” Bernd said.
He added that the Middle East has in recent years become more accepting of litchis, but there again South Africa contends with competitors in the form of Réunion, Mauritius and (to a lesser extent than in Europe) Madagascar.
“Huge responsibility to not overload market”
In the United States South Africa has no other competitors of note during the country’s litchi season, and steps in as counterseasonal supplier to Mexican litchi supply.
“That gives us a huge responsibility to not overload the market but to let it grow organically, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Right: bagging South African litchis on the spot in an Asian specialty store in Flushing, New York
“There are pockets in the US where litchis as a niche product fit right in. Our niche product approach is wholesale first, going into specialist stores. The fruit is bagged on the spot in massive shops that replicate a Food Lovers Market model in terms of size and offering. Everything is fresh, everything is beautiful.”
Another distinguishing feature to the US market is its price resilience. “From the first commercial shipments in 2016 we have traded on a fixed price and in the United States we don’t have this race to the bottom that we have in Europe.”
Spotlight on later litchis
South African litchi exports aim for Christmas supply, the early fruit by air, to get trade going, then by sea mainly after Christmas to Chinese New Year (not always possible due to its varying date) and beyond.
Litchis are sent in 4.5kg cartons (called a ten-pounder in American parlance, in which a lot of airfreight fruit is traded) and fruit is enclosed in a StePac MAP bag to avoid insect contamination.
"The MAP bag has given us legs on the product which has been quite phenomenal.”
At every step Agrilink prefers to err on the side of caution, Bernd said, remarking that this conservative approach and responsiveness to feedback from receivers (which they actively solicit) have played a role in the expansion of this trade.
The cost chain is expensive, he pointed out: airfreight and seafreight rates on the TransAtlantic route are higher than on the route to Europe.
“The entry requirements are complicated and the packaging is more expensive but in hindsight the MAP bag has given us legs on the product which has been quite phenomenal.”
Air freight pallets pre-loading
South African litchis need to be treated with radiation of between 400 and 800 gray in Gulfport Mississippi where fruit are depalletized, loaded onto trolleys for the radiation process, then repacked onto pallets.
“All of this takes time within our very short season. In the US a huge focus is on extending the litchi season to reach Chinese New Year and beyond with later varieties and later production areas. That’s one of our drives, and the South African Litchi Growers’ Association is doing lots of work on that.”
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