South Africa saw off its first shipment of citrus from the Port of Durban to the new multimillion-rand Philippine market yesterday.

The new market presented the country with the potential to export 20 000 tons of citrus fruit and earn close to R205 million a year.

The Citrus Growers Association of South Africa (CGA) said yesterday that this would also translate into more desperately needed job opportunities at a time when Covid-19 had devastated many other industries and led to millions of job losses.

In the first quarter of this year, employment in the agricultural sector was down 8 percent year-on-year, with 792 000 people employed. This was the lowest level since 2014, which was a drought year.

Currently, the country was in a drought season and the Agricultural Business Chamber said the decline in jobs seemed to be concentrated within sectors affected by the lockdown regulations, such as horticulture, wine grapes and game.

The export of citrus fruit to the Philippines was the culmination of 12 years of negotiations between the two countries, with a landmark plan finally being signed between the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) and the Philippines Bureau of Plant and Industry at the end of last year.

Gaining access to this new market was largely the result of close collaboration between industry role-players, including the CGA, Citrus Research International, the South African Embassy in Manila, and the DALRRD.

CGA chief executive Justin Chadwick said the opening of the Philippine market came at a time when the South African citrus industry was expected to grow by 500 000 tons over the next three to five years.

He said expanding access to new overseas markets was crucial if the sector wanted to avoid an oversupply of the region’s exports to existing markets.

According to Chadwick, in the current export season, the soft citrus-producing regions were expected to show the most significant growth – up by 29 percent from last year – with mandarins expected to grow by 42 percent within this category.

“It is, therefore, encouraging that this category makes up the biggest volumes of citrus imported by the Philippines, with over 80 000 tons imported between 2016 and 2018 out of a total of 117 000 tons of citrus imported over that period.”

Chadwick said up to now, Argentina and Australia had been the largest exporters of mandarins from the Southern Hemisphere to the Philippines.

“However, we hope that our local citrus industry will surpass these countries as the main supplier of soft citrus to the Philippines over the next few years.”

The CGA said they were pleased the citrus industry remained well positioned to contribute towards the country’s economic recovery.

Last year, the sector enjoyed a record-breaking export season, with 146 million cartons of fruit, and it was set to enjoy another record-breaking export season this year.

The CGA said it would continue working with the government to open and expand access to other key markets, including China, the US, India, Japan, Vietnam and the EU, thereby contributing towards job creation and inclusive growth.

Meanwhile, the chairperson of the South African Agricultural Machinery Association, Karel Munnik, said that there was continuing optimism in the agricultural industry.

According to the Crop Estimates Committee’s May estimate, the overall maize crop was expected to be almost 6 percent up on last season’s, and the soya bean crop, the largest ever, was expected to be more than 50 percent up on last season’s.

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