It is unclear when the first avocados reached South Africa, but it could be as far back as the 1500s. Records exist that prove avocado cultivation by the late 1920s, but the first orchards in South Africa were planted during the 1930s by Dr Merensky at Westfalia, and Lanion Hall at HL Hall & Sons.
By 1970, plantings of around 2 000ha existed; by 2003 a total of 12 000ha were dedicated to avocado production.
The rapid growth of the avocado industry led to the establishment of the South African Avocado Growers’ Association (SAAGA) in 1967. A forum to promote communication between producers and other interested parties, its main aim was to regulate the flow of avocados to the European market and stabilise prices.
For a while producers made handsome profits, but by the late 1970s the industry was in trouble. Phytophthora was rampant without any control measures; black spot caused huge losses; post-harvest diseases were common but causes were unknown and there were no control measures. Adding to producers’ woes was the increasing incidence of cartons collapsing and rail trucks with avocados disappearing, only to be discovered months later on some obscure rail siding.
The industry acknowledged the need for a coordinated research effort and the SAAGA Research Committee was founded.
Many opportunities exist to improve the post‑harvest condition of South African avocados.
- In 2014, a record year, South Africa produced almost 140 000 tonnes of avos, and exported just about 15 million 4kg-cartons.
- The local production season runs from February to September.
- Almost 79% of South Africa’s export avocados are destined for the EU. The UK, at around 19%, is the second biggest market.
- Avocados originated in an area stretching from central Mexico, through Guatemala and into Central America.
- Avocados are extremely fastidious – different cultivars require very specific climatic and soil conditions to perform at their best.
- South Africa produces subtropical avocados; the tropical varieties grow in truly hot, lowland climates.
Thanks to its work, a greater understanding of the post-harvest handling of avocados emerged. It was discovered, for instance, that fruit quality depended on storage period, and that avocados could be artificially ripened with ethylene gas.
Today the local industry remains mainly export orientated, with black-skin cultivars, such as ‘Maluma’, ‘Hass’ and ‘Lamb Hass’, being the most popular with overseas consumers.
The need for research also remains.
Uneven ripening is an example of a challenge that should be addressed in earnest. Similarly, the incidence of grey pulp remains unacceptably high, despite the causes being well known. In some instances, it would appear that exporters put financial gains ahead of the reputation of the South African industry by exporting high risk fruit.
The use of photo-selective shade nets hold potential, but also risk. The microclimate created by the nets differs significantly from an open orchard and may, eventually, give rise to new diseases and defects, offering unique research opportunities.
RESEARCH PROJECTS 2014-2017
- The development of harvesting and extended storage protocols for late season ‘Lamb Hass’ and ‘Reed’ avocado fruit.
South African consumers have developed such a taste for avocados that they want to enjoy them year round. A study funded by industry and the PHI Programme is looking at options to improve local production and storage methods to meet this demand without having to depend on out-of-season imports.
Read article: Satisfying the out-of-season appetite for avos
- Upgrading the ‘Maluma’ avocado cultivar’s harvest, storage and ripening protocols.
Researchers are putting a new local avocado cultivar through its post-harvest quality paces in order to capitalise on European consumers’ changing preferences.
Read article: Keeping up with tastes that are a-changing
- Photo-selective nettings to improve post-harvest fruit quality of ‘Hass’ avocados.
Nets that manipulate light to the benefit of the plants that grow under them is not science fiction. It is a new agro-technological concept that is boosting the post-harvest quality of ‘Hass’ avocados.
Read article: Shade nets light the way to avocado quality
- Colour change problem in ‘Hass’ avocado.
When consumers feel they cannot trust the external appearance of an avocado to tell them when the inside is ready to enjoy, exports come under threat. Fortunately a recently completed three-year study provided some answers.
Read article: Solving the ‘Hass’ skin colouring riddle
RESEARCH PROJECTS 2011-2014
- Environmentally friendly post-harvest disease control methods for peaches and avocados.
Thyme oil used in new-generation packaging not only keeps avocados safe from disease, it also extends their shelf life.
Read article: Anoint the Avocado