South Africa has set itself the goal of becoming the world’s preferred supplier of fresh fruit; making taste its point of difference in comparison to fellow Southern Hemisphere competition. For the UK market, that has meant a concerted effort to raise the quality of its stonefruit and topfruit supply after recognising the offer had started to lose touch with consumer requirements. Produce Business UK examines what has been achieved, the new and improved varieties on offer and the response so far
“The 2015/16 season marks the eighth year of South Africa’s Beautiful Country, Beautiful Fruit promotional campaign in the UK (for stonefruit and topfruit) and there’s been a real shift in terms of stepping up the taste and quality of fruit on offer,” explains Dom Weaver, communications director at RED Communications, who adds that the range includes plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, apples and pears.
According to qualitative and quantitative research undertaken by RED during 2015, today’s consumers in the UK want fresh fruit that tastes good, rather than just being cheap. “This is an opportunity for retailers to put value back into the produce aisle,” Weaver points out.
Jacques du Preez, product manager for stonefruit and topfruit at Hortgro – the umbrella communication platform for a number of South African horticultural sectors – explains that the redoubling of South Africa’s efforts came in response to this very need to give UK consumers a better eating experience.
“The constant dilemma in the supply chain is to satisfy the different needs of the three main partners in the supply chain – the producer, the consumer and the middle part that links the two – the trade, exporters, importers, retailers, wholesalers,” he tells Produce Business UK.
“The focus has probably been too heavily weighted on the supply chain and not the consumer; this has slowly led to a point where contact was lost with the ‘market’ (the consumer). Through consumer research we have identified shoppers’ specific needs and we are addressing these. Ultimately, it’s all about giving them the best possible taste and eating experience, although looks are still a determining factor.”
Du Preez describes the UK as always having been a market that demands exact specifications for fruit, adding that its consumers have long been recognised as being very discerning – willing to pay, while expecting the best in terms of cosmetic appearance and, more importantly, a taste experience.
“An industry-wide principle decision was taken not to allow any dispensations on lowering of sugar levels of stonefruit anymore,” he explains. “Further to this, a lot of attention to harvesting, cold chain management and fruit ripening has taken place in South Africa.”
In particular, Weaver says a real opportunity has emerged in the UK for a supply of ready-to-eat fruit. Indeed, he claims UK retailers are already starting to “up their game” with ready-to-eat and special varieties. “The discounters are providing some good ready-to-eat fruit, which is laying down a challenge to the ‘Big Four’,” he points out.
Du Preez agrees, pointing to the consumer research carried out by RED for Hortgro which has confirmed modern day consumers in the UK are buying smaller amounts more frequently. “The traditional big once-a-week shop is becoming less popular,” he says. “Consumers therefore buy less at a time, more frequently and are thus demanding fruit that is ready for them to eat immediately; they don’t want to wait for it to ripen.”
What the new varieties offer
South Africa’s stonefruit and topfruit sectors have consequently placed great emphasis on improving their varietal offer, with new plum cultivars including Flavour King, African Pride and African Delight, as well as new white-fleshed peaches and nectarines that are coming through.
Weaver says upmarket UK retailer Marks & Spencer now champions South African Flavour King plums – the variety that tastes like bubblegum. “The retailers get quite excited about this variety when it becomes available in February time,” he says. “It has a lovely colour and it eats so well.”
He adds that African Pride and African Delight (a late variety that goes further into April and possibly May) are other stonefruit varieties that UK retailers now like to focus on too.
What is also “great” about the new cultivars and increased volumes, claims Du Preez, is that they fall outside the traditional peak weeks. “In other words, South Africa is exporting more and more stonefruit but at a much more stable rate and over a much longer window than was the case five years ago,” he explains. “A cultivar such as African Delight (a late season variety) is an excellent example of how we are managing to extend our supply later with great tasting plums.”
There are also exciting new cultivars of peaches and nectarines coming through, which offer some very different characteristics from traditional the yellow-fleshed varieties. “White-fleshed peaches and nectarines are different; they’re exciting and they give us good diversification,” points out Du Preez, explaining that they include Majestic Delight, Arctic Star, Flavella, Regal and Fire Pearl.
While there are significantly more new cultivars for stonefruit than for topfruit – where the “old faithful” tried, tested and known cultivars still dominate – Du Preez says improvements have still been made in the latter category.
“Cultivars and improved strains of Royal Gala, Royal Beaut, Fuji and Braeburn have experienced good growth over the last five years,” he notes. “For topfruit, the aim is not necessarily to find new cultivars, but rather to improve the ones we already have.”
Other varieties, meanwhile, are still in the experimental phase. “It’s too early to tell yet about their success,” admits Du Preez. “The UK is normally among the first to receive new cultivars, so most of the new ones will be exported there.”
Reinforcing its point of difference
Currently, South Africa exports a sizeable share of its total topfruit and stonefruit export offer to the UK, including 25% of its apple volume, 39% of peaches, 57% of nectarines and 26% of plums, according to figures from Hortgro.
The new and improved varieties are designed to support South Africa’s goal of becoming the world’s preferred supplier of fresh fruit. “We are differentiating ourselves on taste from our Southern Hemisphere competition, as well as the Northern Hemisphere in certain times of overlap,” Du Preez says.
“We believe our climatic growing conditions and soils allow us to produce fruit that tastes superior. We might not produce the biggest or cosmetically perfect coloured fruit but we do offer a superior eating experience. Geographically, South Africa is also an obvious choice from the Southern Hemisphere when one considers transit times.”
With a variety of quality product to offer, Du Preez is also keen to point out that South Africa remains a reliable and responsible supplier. “South Africa has a disciplined, organised industry with proven traceability and quality assurance programmes in place,” he adds. “This will be enhanced with the focus on quality and great eating experience back to the consumer.”
Response so far
Looking back at the past season’s volumes exported to the UK, Hortgro’s data indicates that already there has definitely been a positive reaction to the improved offer. “Apple exports to the UK increased by 34% in 2015, nectarines rose by 32%, plums by 42% and peaches by 23%,” Du Preez reveals. “There are a number of new stonefruit varieties that are experiencing increased volumes, in particular.”
The industry has also received the backing of major UK multiple Tesco. For the second successive year, the retailer was named by Hortgro as ‘South African Stone Fruit Retailer of the Year’ in recognition of its performance in the stonefruit category during the 2014/15 season.
“After some past turbulent seasons it has been great to see Tesco really get behind South African fruit,” Du Preez notes. “Tesco’s increase in volumes from South Africa over the last three seasons surpassed most of the other big retailers.”
Du Preez says Tesco “excelled” in stonefruit during 2014/15, particularly during the winter season when British consumers are less used to picking up fruit such as plums, peaches and nectarines.
“It has identified the opportunity to expand the category and worked with our growers to highlight to its customers the great eating quality, exciting varieties and positive socio-economic impact of buying fruit available at this time of the year,” he explains.
“Tesco has worked with the stonefruit campaign to communicate to shoppers – with South African identification on packs of fruit, information booklets in packs and online activity. This collaborative approach has led to impressive development in stonefruit for yet another year.”
L-R: Jacques Du Preez hands the award
to Tesco stonefruit buyer Henry Maulik
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