The longest distance that avocados for the South African branches of Woolworths now have to travel, is 2,600km, the distance between Chimoio in Mozambique and Cape Town, for a few weeks in February before South Africa’s own harvest starts in earnest.
Avocado orchards in Mozambique (photo courtesy of Woolworths)
“Many years ago we took the decision to support the local avocado industry, and we whittled down the avocado import season down to three months, then two months, then one month, every year edging closer to our goal. It took a lot of preparation regarding storage and handling to do this,” Tom Murray, technical manager of fresh produce and horticulture at Woolworths, explains. “Two years ago we achieved it and it’s been an amazing story, a huge achievement – now we’ve just got to repeat it every year.”
Last year, their second of complete reliance on Southern African avocados for a growing (and sometimes impatient) domestic consumer base, was a difficult one to pull off. “It was a tough year, the crop was down, so we’re very grateful for the supplies from Mozambique starting this week. Without these volumes from Mozambique we wouldn’t be able to keep up with supply.”
He notes that the avocado market has been “very, very tight” over the past few weeks.
Out-of-season avo growers take big risk
“We’ve managed to carry on the season through right until now, with Gem Hass from KwaZulu-Natal. Last year we ran with KwaZulu-Natal Gem until the beginning of March, this year the Gem already ended by the end of January. The avocado harvest around George in the Southern Cape was finished by the beginning of December and in Adelaide, in the Eastern Cape, due to the drought and very tough conditions the crop was taken off sooner. It was very tough last season to only use local supply, it took a lot of work to get it right.”
Tom points out that out-of-season avocado producers, like those in KwaZulu-Natal and the Cape, take a massive risk. “There’s always the risk of hail and the risk to the following year’s crop when fruit is left hanging so long. I don’t think consumers sufficiently appreciate what these farmers are doing to ensure there are always avocados on the shelf. Our growers are incredible guys.”
But Tom doesn’t mind the lamentations by consumers on social media regarding the scarcity of avocados at retailers like Woolworths. He regards it as evidence of the amazing uptake of avocados among consumers. “We’ll all be rejoicing when the new season starts, everybody’s looking forward to the 2020 season.”
Westfalia expanded into Mozambique
Woolworths has been working very closely with Westfalia, its main avocado supplier. Six years ago Westfalia established a 250 hectare avocado farm and packhouse near Chimoio in Manica Province, central Mozambique.
“The Mozambican volumes have been growing, the trees are still young (both Hass and Fuerte) but we expect next year’s crop to be big.”
Woolworths has been receiving avocados from Mozambique for three years, with a planned ten trucks for this season.
“You’ll see in a few years that a twelve month local supply will have become the norm, it just took someone to take up the challenge and be the first to do it.”