Huge boost for Sundays citrus

DESPITE stricter European Union (EU) food safety regulations around the export of citrus fruit from South Africa, a retail organisation based in Holland has made the bold decision to invest in the people of the Sundays River Valley.

Retailer Albert Heijn yesterday celebrated the opening of a training centre for emerging farmers and farm workers at the Sundays River Citrus Company (SRCC) near Addo, which the Albert Heijn Foundation has funded through its African development fund.

This despite the EU's stricter controls over citrus black spot this season, which has severely affected the South African citrus industry.

SRCC managing director Ken Nieuwenhuizen said the significant tightening of export regulations particularly affected the firm's lemon exports to the EU, which usually represented 40% of its export market. "This season we exported only 10% of our lemons to Europe and we had to find other markets for the fruits, such as the Middle East and Russia, which affected the prices since these markets already had a big supply of citrus," he said.

Nieuwenhuizen said the sword hanging over the industry's head of the possible closure of the European markets was lifted slightly at a recent trade summit with the EU, but the application of the safety measures to prevent citrus black spot entering the market had not been relaxed.

Inspectors regularly visited the SRCC's pack houses and farms, with the result that some Sundays River Valley orchards had been blocked from exporting citrus due to the fungus being detected on the fruit.

"The European market is a very important market for the SRCC. Next season it will be essential for the citrus industry and government to work together closely to get open access to these markets," Nieuwenhuizen said.

Henri Zondag, a representative from the Albert Heijn Foundation, said part of the company's business strategy was to invest in their suppliers on a long-term basis.

"We believe in managing a problem such as citrus black spot together with the supplier. We will not walk away from the supplier and instead believe in working intensely to prevent the disease and to reduce the risk in a proactive manner. The worst thing we could have is empty shelves for our customers."

Zondag said despite stricter export regulations by the EU, several of the SRCC's citrus products had been exported to Albert Heijn retailers in Holland this season since the company – which employs 12800 permanent and seasonal workers in the Sundays River Valley – had supplied the needs of the European retail giant for several years.

As part of this long-term supplier-retailer business relationship, the foundation funded the building of the Masifunde Sonke Education and Training Centre for emerging farmers and farm workers belonging to the SRCC. The centre offers adult education and agricultural, general numeracy and literacy training.

A total of 12% of citrus production is in the hands of emerging farmers belonging to the SRCC and the initial target is to grow this to 30% ownership. Rural Development and Land Reform department director general Moshe Swartz said the department welcomed synergies such as the training centre to upskill farm workers and emerging farmers.

"The low education level of beneficiaries is a big concern. Only a small number of BEE farms have become sustainable. The farmers generally lack management skills. Even white farmers need to be upskilled since technology is constantly changing and we need to prevent the deterioration of skills ..." he said.