A decade ago they were known by Brits as the strange-looking fruit used mainly in posh restaurant dishes. Today avocados are regularly eaten by 12 million people in the UK, says TNS, and no country has done more to raise their profile than South Africa.
Despite the growing popularity of avocados, 80% of British households still do not buy them. The challenge for South African growers is to push up consumption without flooding the market and dragging down prices.
South Africa is the biggest exporter of avocados, with 60% of production going abroad, mainly to the UK, Germany and France. The South African Avocado Growers’ Association is predicting a harvest of 9.8 million cartons this season, which runs from March until October - a 29% increase on 2004.
The SA industry has made great strides in improving information sharing among producers and with other supplying countries such as Chile, Peru and Israel in a bid to spread out supply.
However, the strong rand and increasing packaging and labour costs means the
temptation to make a quick buck is sometimes too great to resist.
For example, rumours of a gap in Hass due to frost damage in Spain in April caused some suppliers to work round the clock to make shipments to the UK, raising fears of a price crash.
Patrick Caetano, packhouse manager at Koeltehuis near Nelspruit in the sub-tropical north of the country, says: “The minimum wage and production costs have gone up but our margins have dropped, and there’s lots of consolidation going on among exporters and growers. Promotional activity at the start of the season is really important and point of sale will help us sell more avocados in stores.”
Unlike the fresh fruit sector, the avocado industry was not regulated by government and so is slightly ahead on the marketing evolutionary ladder.
July in the UK is Avocado Summer Month and will be the focus of a promotional programme in newspapers and radio, with healthy eating messages the main theme.
Promotional efforts have resulted in more people eating ripe-and-ready avocados, which is good news for the industry, according to SAAGA chairman Claus Lippert. “It’s had a major impact on getting shoppers to try for the first time, resulting in increased consumer penetration and repeat purchases.”
South Africa is leading a project to launch a joint marketing campaign in key export markets, including the UK, with the world’s other major producing countries.
A proposal is currently being considered to take the methodology of the UK programme and use it to develop European markets.
Hall’s in Nelspruit, the biggest supplier of avocados to the UK, is focusing on innovations in quality in a bid to increase value and hopes to become the first to hit the market with pre-prepared portions. The company says the avocado side of its business is back in profit due to increased efficiency.
Managing director Robert Snaddon says: “Year-on-year we are finding that supermarkets are a less profitable place to be in and we hope to open up new markets.
“But it’s all about pendulum swings, and it will probably swing back in the future.”