At its core – despite fancy branding, old-fashioned snobbery and all the lifestyle associations that come with it – wine is an agricultural product. One of South Africa’s prime export products and job providers. Are there any lessons for wine from other fields of agriculture? Are there any takeaways, especially from the very successful South African citrus industry?
SA citrus is thriving. According to the Daily Maverick, citrus overtook wine as South Africa’s largest agricultural export product in 2010. By 2020, it reached 2½ times the value of SA wine exports. One can understand citrus’ success during 2020. The pandemic made Vitamin C priority while discouraging the social aspects around wine. But what happened over the last decade to make SA citrus the powerhouse it is today? And while there are of course fundamental differences between the two products by the time they end up in retail, what can wine learn from the success of citrus?
One of the aspects that put SA on the forefront of the global citrus industry, is its continued focus on varieties. The SA industry kept up to date with the offering and demand for higher value “soft citrus” varieties along with lemons and limes, rather than oranges that used to be popular. “South Africa is genuinely a world leader, with improved home-grown varieties and smart agriculture techniques being applied in upgrading production.” Deciding on varieties is always a challenge when planting trees or vines as it takes a few years for these new plantings to come into production. Determining future trends and preferences are therefore very important. Research and market insight are required and as these are hard and expensive to come by for the individual, having a well-funded grower organisation is the answer.
Citrus has this in the Citrus Growers Association (CGA). The organisation’s role is to provide market access, research and technical support, logistics and transformation. Funding comes from a government-approved statutory levy on all export citrus. A hefty levy increase of more than 100% (from 74c / 15 kg box in 2020 to R1.64 / 15 kg box in 2021) was announced by minister Thoko Didiza in December last year. (Read more). Seeing the successes of its investment over the last years, the CGA welcomed this increase.
SA Wine has similar organisational support through the cooperation between various industry players such as Vinpro, WOSA, Winetech, Sawis, etc. I know about the hard work and dedication of all involved with SA wine. I believe we have our systems and values in place and like citrus, our focus is on combined export success. It is of course a long-term focus that requires sustained investment and commitment to cooperation. In my opinion, citrus has one very important advantage – government support. Other than approving the industry export levy, government also works closely with the CGA on market access, tariffs and trade barriers. “These are government-to-government negotiations, with the CGA representing local growers and providing technical support.” Government might have many flaws, but they are a great help when it comes to market access and establishing trade agreements.
In an opinion piece for News.24 Sifisa Ntombela writes that the citrus industry’s success can be attributed to “enabling export policy and a well-functioning institution.” And it is also with the enabling of export policy that government cooperation proved to be crucial. The promulgation of the Marketing of Agricultural Product Act of 1996, together with the SADC-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, African Growth and Opportunity Act and a number of market protocols for markets such as Japan and South Korea created new opportunities for citrus farmers in South Africa. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition has further supported promotions and incentives to further the image of SA citrus in the international market.
Citrus also has challenges. Black spot has been a big problem for South Africa and similar to most other agricultural industries in our country, they are criticized for being slow when it comes to transformation. There is, however, no denying the success story that is SA citrus. Success breeds success. When the industry is effective and stable, growers are happy to contribute and such investment can support further research, skills development, digitalisation, transformation… “The success of the citrus industry rests on investments over time – in capabilities and coordination”, says the Daily Maverick.
There are fundamental differences between perishables and wine. As the word implies, perishables are even more subject to weather conditions and logistical challenges. They have a shorter shelf life and markets are much more volatile when it comes to supply, demand and pricing. There is also less mystique to a clementine than a bottle of wine and a pomelo is usually less intimidating than a Merlot. Of course, wine’s mystique holds some of its allure, but we all know that there is much more to the success of an industry.
When it is not a fight for survival, you can dream about success and often, all you need is capable support – from your industry and from your government. I am grateful for what we have in place for wine, but citrus is a wonderful inspiration for our industry – even if it is only to persist in trying to make friends in government.