In this article looks at niche markets in the agricultural industry. We look at a few industries – from fruit and fungi to aquaculture – that has shown potential in South Africa and provide an overview of some of the most popular niche markets found today.

Fruit

Blueberries

Blueberry production in South Africa has been expanding rapidly. Jon Salters, CEO of United Exports, says that blueberries form part of the soft fruit category. “By their very nature, soft fruit are mostly delicate, and in some instances very difficult to grow.”

The South African Berry Producers’ Association (SABPA) has recorded data of approximately 2 000ha. However, given the fact that some growers do not report their data, Salters believes it is closer to 2 500ha or more.

“The market has seen significant global expansion, especially in certain countries such as Peru, Morocco and South Africa. That said, countries such as Chile and Canada have been growing blueberries for a long time, although these are older varieties that are fast becoming less appealing to consumers. 

“The vast majority of blueberries in South Africa are exported, with close to 90% of the newer varieties exported. Some of the older varieties are also still exported in lesser quantities, although the countries buying these berries would likely classify it as second grade.”

Salters says this category is still growing and has a lot of potential, but adds that blueberries are a high value crop and that production takes place in a very sensitive growing environment.

Dragon fruit

Dragon fruit is relatively new in South Africa, to consumers and producers alike. Some South African consumers may have seen the odd dragon fruit in the supermarket. They may even have tried it, just to be disappointed by its watery taste.

In a recent radio interview on RSG Landbou, Wynand Espach, general manager of Amorentia Estate and Nursery, said that the more traditional cultivars are commonly produced in Vietnam, the largest producer in the world. The country produces 600 000 to 900 000 tons per annum, of which 80% is used for health and beauty product ranges, due to the fact that their cultivars are rather tasteless.

There are, however, more flavoursome cultivars. According to Espach, the Amorentia Dragon Fruit is one such cultivar with a much sweeter taste. It also has the benefit of being pollinated by nocturnal insects and animals such as bats, whereas hand pollination is necessary in Vietnam. This sweeter cultivar was made available to commercial farmers in 2016, and since then interest in producing dragon fruit has skyrocketed.

Current production is mostly centred in the Limpopo area. Dragon fruit is an epiphytic cactus that originates in Mexico and can easily be left to produce on its own. Espach says they are working with leading market agents in South Africa to develop local and export markets for this niche product. Their goal is to develop the local market first via awareness campaigns created to inform consumers about this sweeter variety. Amorentia wants to make dragon fruit available in every supermarket.

Pomegranate

Pomegranates are another niche market in the local fruit industry. According to the National Agricultural Marketing Council’s (NAMC) South African Fruit Flow Report (June 2018),South Africa exports approximately 80% of all pomegranates produced locally. The main export destinations include the European Union and the Middle East.

Figure 1: South African exports and local consumption trends of pomegranates over the past six years in tons. (Source: POMASA, 2018)

Production volumes have increased almost every year from 2012 to 2017, going from 2 000 tons in 2012 to just below 6 000 tons in 2017. These figures are, however, still relatively small when compared to some of South Africa’s more established fruit export markets, such as nectarines and peaches, where annual production is usually around 250 000 tons (Hortgro).

Pomegranates have additional value chain potential in the agro-processing industry. In a recent interview on RSG Landbou, Izette Dreyer of Royale Pomegranate Oil spoke about the processing of pomegranate kernels into oil used in skin products. This is a very specialised niche market and Royale is currently the only processor in South Africa.

Aquaculture

Trout

Although the trout industry has been well established in South Africa during the past 125 years, it is still considered a niche market in the agricultural industry. In a recent radio interview on RSG Landbou, Stephan van der Merwe of Lunsklip Fisheries discussed the details of the industry. He said the industry can be divided into two main categories: live and processed. Live trout are generally sold to holiday destinations where fly fishing is a common leisure activity. Small fish and ova are also sold to other farms.

At Lunsklip Fisheries this constitutes up to 30% of their business. The remaining 70% is dedicated to the processed market with speciality products sold to hotels, restaurants and other consumers. Van der Merwe says they recently expanded their business to include the production of trout ova. This product is mainly exported through their sister company, Trova Trout. Specialised animal health certification is needed to export this exclusive product. The live ova are supplied to farms in the northern hemisphere during our winter (their summer) as trout only breed in winter months.

Trout are cold water fish and are adapted to cold water areas in South Africa with higher altitudes – areas include Magoebaskloof, Lydenburg, Machadodorp, Sabie, Graskop, Dullstroom, Clarens, Bethlehem, the Drakensberg, and the Western Cape.

The production parameters for trout farming include clean water with temperatures ranging between 4 and 19°C and 14 to 16°C during periods of growth and activity. The oxygen levels in the water are of the utmost importance, as cold water retains oxygen better. Van der Merwe says that roughly 1ℓ of running water per minute is needed to keep 1kg fish.

Tilapia

“For the past two decades, aquaculture has been the fastest growing sector in the agricultural industry and will continue to be, as the demand for fish and the population grows,” says David Fincham of David Fincham Aquaculture. “It will be seen on most menus, in most retail outlets and certainly on most plates within the next decade.

“Although tilapia has already stepped up to become one of the most farmed fish in the world, production in South Africa is almost non-existent, while the market is developing at an exponential pace.” Fincham says that tilapia sold in supermarkets and restaurants are mostly imported from China, Indonesia and Mexico, but could easily have been produced locally. There are currently fewer than 100 farmers, but the industry is growing, albeit slowly.

“Tilapia farming and aquaponics will feed the cities in future. If the fish catches on, as it has done worldwide, it will not remain a niche market for long. Most of the fish produced locally are sold directly from the farms. There is, however, some value addition in the form of smoked tilapia, tilapia pâté, and tilapia fillets.

“This sector will keep expanding because we cannot continue to rely on fish from the ocean. Many of the species traditionally fished are in danger. Fish farming therefore needs to develop, and freshwater tilapia farming aids in the production of fresh fish in the urban and rural environment. This is possible because the environmental impact is zero, and with the added benefit of using nutrient-rich water to grow crops.”

“Tilapia are farmed in a variety of systems, ponds, cages, and re-circulating aquaculture systems (RAS). As tilapia are warm water fish and their growth rates are driven by temperature more than any other parameter, they must be farmed commercially in controlled environments in South Africa. Additional benefits are that production requires less water, energy, and feed compared with other farmed sources of protein.”

Fincham says that anyone who is interested in aquaculture, concerned about the environment and the effects of overfishing, or anyone interested in producing healthy food will take an interest in tilapia farming. The fish is considered one of the most versatile fish species to cook and is always tasty, nutritious and healthy. Tilapia contain no hormones, no antibiotics and no chemicals.

Fungi

Oyster mushrooms

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and other exotic types have gained popularity in South Africa in recent years. Although the market is still quite small, it is gradually expanding and has great potential, Dr Susan Koch, senior researcher for fungal diseases and mushroom production at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), recently said on the agricultural morning television show Grootplaas.

Oyster mushrooms are available in pink and yellow varieties. The popular king oyster mushroom is often used in culinary dishes. Oyster mushrooms are quite easy to produce, but producers require high levels of expertise to achieve success.

According to Dr Koch, the main components needed for production are substrate, spawn and water. In South Africa, wheat straw is most commonly used as substrate (Dr Koch says the ARC has had great success with indigenous Napier grass).

Substrate needs to be of good quality and cannot be rotted. Substrate is pasteurised to ensure a hygienic environment in which mushrooms can grow. If not pasteurised correctly, pests such as parasitic fencing can become a problem. Fungi-eating flies and gnats are the only other pests that can hamper an oyster mushroom harvest. These small insects can easily be kept out if fine netting is used in production houses.

“With only a few producers catering to this niche market, it can be boosted further if consumers are informed about the health benefits of oyster mushrooms,” says Dr Koch. The dried product in particular is not well known. These mushrooms are high in protein, packing 10-30% of protein in dry weight. It contains vitamin D and C, niacin, and folic acid (vitamin B9), as well as lovastatin, which lowers cholesterol.

Those skilled and committed will fare well in this niche market as oyster mushroom production is a 24/7 type of farming enterprise. The candidate should also be business savvy and do market research before venturing into this market. The ARC offers courses on oyster mushroom production for those interested in taking on this interesting challenge. – Ursula Human, FarmBiz