In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, workers pick strawberries that have surprisingly thrived in the region’s balmy temperatures.
Strawberries generally grow best in low temperature climate but the Cappeny Estates farm in Ballito, a town about 40 kilometers north of Durban is making history.
When former project manager Xolani Gumede and his wife started the farm in 2013 in a hot and humid region seen to be hostile for growing the fruit, they were not sure their plan would work.
The varieties we grow are now more heat tolerant than say 20, 30 years ago, and they didn't exist 20, 30 years ago.
Today Xolani is making profits from his 17 hectare farm, where he grows various varieties of strawberries that seem to be doing well here.
His farm is the first commercial project of its kind in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Strawberries do prefer cooler, colder climates than the ones which exist here in Ballito. But in saying that, advancement in the varieties which we can grow have made the options of growing strawberries in this type of climate a lot more possible, the varieties we grow are now more heat tolerant than say 20, 30 years ago, and they didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago,” he said.
The farm has a production capacity of between 1,000 – 2,000 punnets of strawberry a day which are sold locally. The estate also exports to markets abroad.
The farm hires at least 80 people per season to pick the berries.
Xolani took a loan of about 1.5 million dollars to start the venture. He says he is taking advantage of a gap in local strawberry farms in the region.
The main production areas of strawberries are in the Transvaal with 120 hectares during summer and in the Western Cape, with 180 hectares during winter.
Xolani says he was looking for a crop that would do well locally and in the export market. His farm’s close proximity to the airport also makes exporting produce easier and cheap on transport costs.
However, the farmer says getting the business profitable meant a lot of research and some failed attempts before he got it right.
“If it was easy to grow and easy to sell, everybody would be doing it. The fact that not many people are doing it, tells you that at some stage there’s a high element of risk, and the risk part of it is the production side, the sales part the strawberries really sell themselves – they are very, very easy to sell. We have inquiries almost every month, from overseas clients,” said Xolani.
Cappeny Estates sells most of its strawberries as whole fruit and the rest as pulp for juices and jam among other products.
The farm is now certified to export strawberries across the world having met the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards.
South Africa’s diverse agricultural sector, from grains to livestock, has also been hard hit by a scorching drought which this year has been exacerbated by a powerful El Nino weather pattern.
South Africa’s agriculture sector alone has incurred losses of 1 billion dollars as a result.
The economy has also taken a beating this year, contracting more than expected in the first quarter of the year due to a sharp fall in the agriculture and mining sectors.
Cappeny’s exports have been able to cushion the business.
“The currency depreciation, we find that it becomes more and more attractive to export and it also makes it more and more expensive for the imports to be brought into the country as they themselves become out priced in comparison to what we can offer the local market. So we’ve had the repercussions of the economic climate but more severe to us has been the drought,” said Xolani.
Strawberries have been produced in South Africa for about 60 years. According to the department of Agriculture, there are about 300 hectares of strawberries grown in the country today.