Citrus industry woes
James Hall
Published: 01-MAR-01

Swaziland's citrus industry is in crisis, forcing farmers to diversify into other crops. James Hall looks at what precipitated the decline

Swaziland's citrus industry, the oldest export crop in the country, is in the doldrums, forcing farmers to turn to other crops.

Orchards are being torn up in the lowveld region, where they were first planted during the 1950s, to be replaced mostly by sugar cane. Because it takes 10 years for a newly planted tree to bear fruit, the long-term impact has yet to be felt, though declining production and exports testify to a crisis.

Industry analysts say the root cause for the loss of confidence in the industry is the confusion that arose when the services of South Africa's Outspan co-operative were withdrawn. The co-operative allowed the citrus estates to pool their resources and it acted as a communal marketing agent, selling the estates' output under its brand.

Swaziland's citrus exports in 2000 stood at 38,163 tons, down from 49,008 tons in 1999, and below even the 38,711 tons shipped out in 1990.

A combination of a world market oversupply and the absence of the one- channel market system offered by Outspan led to the drop. Outspan is now just one of several marketing agents following the dismantling of agricultural marketing boards by the South African government in the late 1990s.

The Swaziland Citrus Board is the statutory body to which all the kingdom's estates belong. The oldest of these is the Malaysian company, United Plantations, which arrived in Swaziland in 1950 and today comprises the Tambuti and Ngonini citrus estates.

The estates form a crescent of groves through the hot eastern lowveld of the kingdom, from Tambuti and Crookes Plantation near Big Bend up to the Inyoni Yami Swaziland Irrigation Scheme. Swaziland Citrus Estates and Tambankulu Estates at Mhlume are also major producers. But in 1998, Ubombo Ranches replaced all its citrus acreage with sugar cane in what was a precursor to a more widespread change in cultivation.

Hans Noddeboe, director of the Swazi- land Citrus Board, says: "All sorts of cowboys came out of the woodwork as marketing agents when the estates had to sign up with agencies other than Outspan."

What resulted was an industry-wide Tower of Babel where estates that used to speak with one voice failed to communicate at all and into the mix came an oversupply on world markets.

"After the bottom dropped out of the grapefruit market in Europe, which used to be a good buyer of Swazi fruit, everyone rushed to sell to Japan," says an industry source.

Now growers are targeting new markets in Russia, the old Eastern Bloc nations, the Middle East and the Far East. Taiwan, which has close diplomatic and economic ties with Swaziland, is another potential market.

Asked if the Swaziland citrus industry is in crisis, an industry executive says flatly: "If you don't make money, you're in a crisis."

Despite the downturn, there are moves to keep the citrus industry afloat. The Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives is helping to facilitate the search for new markets. Citrus is too important an employer in the lowveld region for the government to allow its extinction.

Citrus growers are also looking at the possibility of forming their own national co-operative.

The canning industry has absorbed a lot of the citrus crop that finds no buyers overseas, with canned citrus segments being sold mostly in the UK and Japan.

It has spare capacity since the Malkerns Valley in central Swaziland, which once was devoted almost exclusively to the cultivation of pineapple for the canning industry located there, went over to sugar cane cultivation.

However, the country is feeling the pinch of an over reliance on sugar. Latest Central Bank statistics show sugar production declined by 6.8 percent during the six months to September 2000. Although export volumes increased by 5 percent during the period, export revenues were down a significant 29 percent due to a weakening of the Euro, used to pay for Swazi sugar.

Domestic sugar consumption also dropped 30.9 percent during the period, just as small-scale sugar co-operatives on Swazi National Land were producing their first yields.

Securing new markets for the citrus industry may come too late. Like a cattle owner who slaughters all the calves in his herd when beef prices fall, Swazi citrus growers may rue the day when they ordered young orchards to be dug up for sugar cane.

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