Juicy fruit: South Africa's plums blossom into big business

Story highlights

  • Plums grow well in the cool climate of the Franschhoek Valley in South Africa
  • South Africa exported 10.5 million cartons of plums in 2013-14
  • Plum shipments from South Africa are expected to increase by around 10% this year
  • Approximately 70% of plums grown in South Africa are sold overseas
CNN Marketplace Africa covers the macro trends impacting the region and also focuses on the continent's key industries and corporations.

(CNN)Enjoying the first bite of a fresh juicy plum may well be described as a simple pleasure, but the process from farm to mouth involves careful planning and precision.

In South Africa, the journey for many plums starts in the picturesque Franschhoek Valley in the Western Cape, where the climate is well-suited for growing the stone fruit.
    "We've got a slightly cooler summer than the rest of the area," explains Jan Hoon Marketing Manager at Franschhoek Fruit Packers. "Plums prefer cooler temperatures during the growing area of the plum, from after flowering until harvesting. So the time of the fruit on the tree is more, compared to other areas."
    And it is plums that are the most important stone fruit to the South African economy, making up a bigger share of both production and exports than peaches and apricots. According to horticultural experts Hortgro, almost 16 million cartons of stone fruit were exported during the 2013-14 season, of which 10.5 million cartons were plums.
    Tight timing
    Hoon and his team are focused on getting the stone fruit out of the orchard, into the pack shed and off to market -- largely in Europe and the Middle East. In fact, approximately 70% of plums grown in South Africa are destined to be sold overseas.
    "They must be shipped for four weeks," explains technical and quality assistant Ilse Botha. "By the time they reach the market they [must be] completely edible and sweet."
    Fortune Plums are a red variety with yellow flesh, but Hoon and Botha must pack the stone fruit before they are fully ripe and colored.
    "If you don't pick it at the right maturity, then it doesn't get overseas at the right eating quality," explains fruit farmer Tol Malherbe. "We do [check] pressures to see that the maturity is right," he continues. "As soon as we do that it will go into the cold room for a day to cool it down after we pick it...Then we take it out and pack it and we ship it."
    According to the National Agricultural Marketing Council, plum production in South Africa has increased from 60,000 tons in 2009/2010 to nearly 80,000 tons in 2013/2014. And Hortgro is expecting plum shipments to increase by around 10% this year.
    But to ensure these forecasts are met, farmers like Malherbe need the right climatic conditions.
    "Weather is quite a big factor for the plum industry," Malherbe explains. "If it rains, then we don't have fruit on the trees or very little and if the weather is too dry or too hot then we've got smaller fruit...This year we are seven to 10 days earlier than last year, so the fruit is much smaller than the previous year."
    Meeting standards
    In order to export fruit, certain criteria need to be met. Essential for plum producers is the Global Gap food safety certification, which gives shop customers and retailers in 118 countries the ability to trace a product right back to the farm.
    Fruit producers must also comply with standards set by the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa, which was established by the South African fruit industry to make sure labor practices in orchards and pack sheds are ethical.
    "They've got eight minimum steps; forced labor, child labor, hours working of the laborers," explains Malherbe. "All that stuff needs to be in place on the farm and that's quite a lot of paperwork that needs to be done."
    But, for a company focused on selling abroad, the challenges don't stop with paperwork. As the African market for stone fruit grows by 100 per cent year on year, the growers and producers need to adapt to the market.
    "The infrastructure in Africa is very limited at the moment," says Hoon. "Not a lot of cold storages around in Africa. There are only a certain amount of plum varieties we are capable of exporting into Africa, but definitely Africa is a growing market."
    But Hoon is also clear that the current established markets will continue to be important for the South African stone fruit industry.
    "Our advantage is that we are almost 10 days quicker on transit time from South Africa into the European markets so in general in the stone fruit season in we produce about 60/70% of the out of season stone fruit production for Europe," he explains. "We need to be better than our competition, which is mainly South America, so we just need to outperform them and deliver better quality for the markets."