Government help needed to help fresh fruit exports flourish- South Africa

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The growing demand for quality fruit with a longer shelf life has spurred investments in high resolution camera-sorting equipment and cold storage technologies. Producers can grade and sort fruit according to external and internal characteristics, and store fruits for extended periods of up to 10 months. These technologies enable more effective exports at higher prices by ensuring a longer shelf life and consistent supply of high-quality, defect-free fruit to global consumers.

In recent years SA has, however, lost its lead position in controlled atmosphere cold storage technologies mainly because of limited government funding and lack of private sector investment. At the same time, limited research and skills to develop new sorting technology mean most producers import such equipment at escalating costs: 10-lane sorting equipment cost about R80m-R100m in 2018 .

The demand for fruit varieties that are adaptable to changing climates and more resistant to pests and diseases has been driving innovations in breeding technologies. Although the fruit industry has access to locally bred varieties, more imported strains are entering the market due to underinvestment in local breeding programmes and quarantine facilities. The industry mainly still relies on imported varieties, particularly for berries.

However, imported varieties currently take two years in quarantine before commercial use. To remain competitive in markets that are constantly replacing old fruit varieties by improved ones, local breeding — especially of types suitable for worsening climates — must be promoted, and imported varieties processed timeously.

Ensuring fruit supply chains that can compete successfully on the world market calls for a systems integration by industry role players. Our research shows that the local industry’s adoption of technologies has been driven largely by the private sector. If policymakers are serious about leveraging technologies, partnerships and alignment of priorities between the government and the private sector are necessary.

The establishment of a presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution, announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa recently, is an important opportunity for considering the policy responses to technological changes in the fruit industry, and agriculture more generally. Our research points to several key considerations.

First are urgent investments in spectrum and internet infrastructure in fruit growing (rural) areas to enable faster connectivity and flow of information. At the same time, talk of the fourth industrial revolution is almost meaningless without cheaper data. Another priority is that the government and industry move to electronic data-sharing systems and digital platforms, linking players in the value chain to address the challenges of limited data and to ease congestion at the ports. Lastly, investments in quarantine facilities help improve local growing of new varieties relevant for climate change.

• Chisoro-Dube is a researcher at UJ’s Centre for Competition, Regulation and Economic Development.