South African avocados are breaking into the vast Chinese market, marking a significant milestone for the country's avocado industry. The export agreement inked between South Africa's Ministry of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs opens doors for South African avocados to enter China. South Africa became the third African nation to do so, following in the footsteps of Kenya and Tanzania. While the paperwork is in place, several crucial steps lie ahead, including farm and packhouse registrations and ensuring a smooth fumigation process.
South Africa has traditionally relied heavily on European markets for its avocado exports. However, the newfound access to the Chinese market presents an attractive alternative for South African avocado producers. More than just a short-term solution, the Chinese market is poised to play a pivotal role in the long-term growth of the South African avocado industry.
South Africa stands as the leading avocado exporter on the African continent, with a global reach extending to Europe, the Middle East, and other countries in Southern Africa. This year, it's anticipated that South Africa will export approximately 18 million cartons of avocados, reflecting a substantial increase from the previous year's 16.3 million cartons, translating to an impressive year-on-year growth (YoY) of around 10%.
In recent years, the South African avocado industry has experienced remarkable expansion, encompassing an additional 4,750 hectares (ha) or 11,700 acres. This expansion has propelled the total avocado-growing acreage to over 18,000 ha (or 45,000 acres). According to the 2023 avocado tree census conducted in South Africa, commercial avocado orchards now cover approximately 19,500 ha, with an additional 800 ha of new plantings taking root each year.
Traditionally, the South African avocado season spanned from February to October. However, due to new plantings in higher-altitude and southerly regions, avocado harvesting now occurs throughout the year. While the peak harvest still unfolds between February and August, the yields from September to January are on the rise as newly planted areas start to yield fruit.
The entrance into the Chinese market comes with a set of stringent phytosanitary challenges. South African growers and exporters must ensure that their avocados meet the exacting standards outlined in the Chinese protocol. These requirements encompass strict adherence to good agricultural practices and the implementation of integrated pest management techniques.
Throughout the processing and packaging stages, avocados destined for China must undergo a series of procedures. These include high-pressure water spraying, hand picking, brushing, and grading to guarantee that the fruit is devoid of live insects, subpar or misshapen specimens, branches, leaves, roots, and soil contaminants. Crucially, the length of the avocado stalks must not exceed 3 millimeters (mm). To safeguard against the potential introduction of quarantine pests into China, avocados slated for the Chinese market must undergo methyl bromide fumigation.
Despite the challenges, the Chinese market offers substantial growth opportunities for South African avocados. China is poised to become one of the world's major avocado consumers, presenting a remarkable chance for the South African avocado industry to flourish. According to Tridge Trade Data in 2022, China's avocado import market was valued at USD 112 million in 2022, translating to an import volume of 41.3 thousand metric tons (mt). This import value was only eclipsed once before in 2018 when China imported USD 133 million worth of avocados.
For comparison, Kenya commenced avocado exports to China in Jul-22, with the Avocado Society of Kenya reporting an export value of USD 7 million for the year. According to China Customs data, as of July this year, China had imported 3.6 thousand mt of Kenyan avocados valued at approximately USD 6.51 million.
The Chinese market undoubtedly holds the key to the future growth of the South African avocado industry. Tridge predicts that with the potential the Chinese market offers, the industry could see an increase in employment within production regions, many of which are in economically disadvantaged rural areas. In turn, this could boost foreign earnings and stimulate general economic growth linked to the fruit export value chain. As South African avocados make their mark in China, the challenges and opportunities on this fruitful journey will shape the future of the nation's avocado industry.