Tomatoes found their way to South Africa via Europe from their home territory of Peru and Ecuador in South America. The early Mexicans domesticated tomatoes, but it was only in the 18th century that it became widely accepted in European households.
Today, tomatoes are one of the most produced and used products across the world. Their popularity can, in part, be ascribed to their status as a functional food, ie, a food that goes beyond providing basic nutrition. Tomatoes contain a wide array of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, including alpha-lipoic acid, lycopene, folic acid, beta-carotene and lutein. They are also a source of vitamin C and choline, an important nutrient that helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning and memory.
South Africa’s annual tomato production is around 600 000 tonnes. The country grows three main types of tomatoes, namely round or fresh tomatoes, roma tomatoes destined for processing, and cherry tomatoes. Most tomatoes are grown in open fields under irrigation.
Pests and diseases are a feature of tomato production. Nematodes are the main headache, especially in Limpopo, followed closely by verticilium, botrytis, whitefly and red spider mite. A particularly dangerous insect, tuta absoluta, recently migrated to South Africa from South America via Europe and the rest of Africa. If not controlled properly, this pest can destroy whole crops.
“Tomatoes are the second most important vegetable commodity after potatoes, planted to about 6000 hectares. Tomatoes contribute about 24% of the total vegetable production in South Africa.”
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Directorate Plant Production
- Strange myths surrounded tomatoes in ancient times, ranging from beliefs that they were toxic to beliefs that they encourage love.
- The debate around whether tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable still rages, with no sign that a conclusive answer will be found soon.
- Tomatoes are a seasonal crop with a limited lifespan of 20 to 24 weeks.
- Tomato production in South Africa employs between 25 000 and 28 000 people a year, with increased numbers during the summer months when production volumes are higher.
- The perfect climate for growing tomatoes is temperatures that stay between 10°C and 30°C and moderate rainfall.
- South Africa is one of only a few countries that can produce tomatoes throughout the year.
Given their relatively short shelf life, tomatoes are mainly grown for domestic use. Between 83% and 87% of the annual crop is sold through the national and regional fresh produce markets, with a limited quantity delivered directly to supermarket chains. A small percentage of South African tomatoes is bought by cross-border traders who sell produce in Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia.
South Africa is regarded as a leader in the use of tomato production best practices. The industry is not, however, without its challenges. High input costs, fluctuating market prices, a shortage of good quality irrigation water, unreliable electricity supply, labour issues and poor road infrastructure top the list of challenges that need to be addressed.
Spearheaded by the Tomato Producers Organisation, programmes are run to improve the local industry’s sustainability and competitiveness.
2019 (R&D currently underway)
- Alternatives to plastic packaging
- Microchip technology monitoring the tomato supply chain
RESEARCH PROJECTS 2014-2017
- Evaluation of quality losses in a South African tomato supply chain due to transportation and handling effects.
Potholes and other road hazards are not only the bane of motorists’ lives; tomatoes, too, suffer when they are transported across rough surfaces over long distances.
Read article: Smoothing tomatoes’ bumpy ride to market