Blueberries, hailed for their health benefits and anti-oxidant properties, have soared in popularity around the world in recent years. In the Western Cape, production and exports of this berry have increased drastically from a low base, and the tiny berry holds the potential to add significant value to the economy and create additional jobs.
The blueberry world market has experienced significant growth in recent years, expanding from R8.8 billion in 2011, to R33.7 billion in 2016- translating into annual average growth of over 30%. All indications are that the global market is still growing to meet the demand that is still much higher than supply.
Minister of Economic Opportunities, Alan Winde said: “This is a growing market, and coupled with the fact that blueberries are a labour intensive crop – with the ability to create 2.96 jobs per hectare – means that there is real potential here for the Western Cape to grow our blueberry exports, expand our economy and create new jobs in the agricultural sector.”
“We’ve seen exceptional growth in a number of our berry crops and this is one of the reasons the Department of Agriculture has been investing in the Alternative Crops Research Fund, which is aimed at boosting crops like berries, cherries and pomegranates which are water-wise and highly labour intensive,” he said.
In South Africa, the strong global growth has initiated substantial investment into blueberry production, and market share has increased from just 0.19% in 2008, to 1.1% in 2016. According to data from Hortgro and the South African Berry Association, 68% of all South Africa’s berries are grown in the Western Cape.
About 70% of all South African blueberries are exported, 16% are sold as fresh in the local market and the remainder enter the agri-processing chain.
Blueberry exports from South Africa have shown annual average growth of about 44%, and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s fly-over data also indicates that the hectares under production for blueberries has shown good growth.
Consumption trends in the USA, which is both the world’s largest consumer and producer of blueberries, show interesting data. Between 2005 and 2012, consumption trebled- partially as a result of a significant rise in the number of products which added blueberries as an ingredient. In the year 2000, approximately 300 products on the American market contained blueberries, by 2012, this had risen to more than 1000. Products including blueberries range from baked goods, to breakfast cereals and yoghurts.
Minister Winde remarked: “We’ve seen from the USA, that there has been a rise in the number of products using blueberries there, which shows the opportunities available in the agri-processing space too. One of the pillars of our Project Khulisa strategy is to develop agri-processing, and berries as a whole, and blueberries in particular have many uses ranging from jams and juices to baked goods, breakfast cereals, health bars and even freeze-dried and frozen options.”
Currently, South Africa and the Western Cape’s biggest export market for its blueberries is the United Kingdom, with import values for 2016 reaching R228 million. The Netherlands is the second biggest market, however, market attractiveness data indicates that there are a number of markets that have strong potential for development and growth including Ireland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany and Belgium. Asian markets in Singapore, Malaysia and China also hold real potential.
While the USA is the world’s largest consumer of blueberries, this market would be a difficult one to tap into primarily because of its proximity to other major producers like Mexico and Canada in the North, and Chile and Peru in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, other northern hemisphere countries are willing to pay premium prices for blueberries in their production off-season. As a Southern hemisphere producer, South Africa is presented with opportunities in this regard, however, would be competing with Chile and Peru, who are some of the largest exporters of blueberries in the world.
“Peru in particular has shown massive growth in blueberry exports since 2011- with an annual average growth rate of over 300%. While South Africa would be competing with these Southern Hemisphere producers, we believe that there is still a lot of untapped market potential, and we see the continued growth of these Southern Hemisphere producers as a positive indicator of growth. At this point it is essential that new markets be opened and explored through bilateral engagements for continued growth of the industry,” Minister Winde said.