Plans are in place that could see South Africa becoming a significant player in the farming and export of saffron – by far the world’s most expensive spice. For the South African economy, this offers an invaluable source of foreign income from exports while also establishing emerging small-scale farmers. Furthermore, it offers commercial farmers an alternative income source through diversification, especially considering ever-changing weather patterns, market trends, and other variables that affect their existing operations.
Bennie Engelbrecht, founder and a director of Saffricon, says their saffron farming operation between Calvinia and Williston in the Northern Cape has been perfecting the art of cultivating saffron in local conditions for the past few years, and that they have reached the next stage of offering the opportunity to other prospective farmers.
Utilising outgrowers to boost the market
This will be accomplished through an outgrower (contract grower) system based on three-year contracts with farmers. “We supply the farmers with our saffron corms (bulbs), which they then plant and cultivate before harvesting the threads (made up of the crimson-coloured stigmas and styles) and selling the annual crop back to us. Under favourable conditions, the corms multiply underground – on average, approximately three times per year. This means if one corm is planted at the beginning of year one, you will, on average, have three corms by the end of that year, nine by the end of year two, and 27 by the end of year three.
“The corms are sold back to Saffricon after year three, hence farmers’ take-up is guaranteed. There is also potential for a double income from the annual saffron harvest, as well as from the multiplied corms.”
Saffricon has started marketing the outgrower system to prospective saffron farmers and expect to have built sufficient corm stock by next year to start gaining momentum. “This year, there is limited corm stock available and only a few hand-picked outgrowers will be supplied with the product. However, we should be able to help many more by 2022. So, interested parties should start placing orders with Saffricon as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.”
Opportunity for developing small-scale emerging farmers
Corné Liebenberg, marketing director of Laeveld Agrochem, says as a partner of Saffricon the company foresees huge potential for saffron farming in South Africa. He believes it offers an ideal opportunity for existing commercial farmers and the development of small-scale emerging farmers. As such it will assist in addressing the country’s high unemployment situation.
“Laeveld Agrochem wants to assist and uplift as far as possible. Therefore, the saffron venture offers many farmers who are currently under pressure an alternative option while giving small-scale farmers an opportunity with solid prospects.
“It is ideal for niche farming – a huge growth area for the South African economy and something Laeveld Agrochem is very passionate about. The initial capital outlay is manageable, relatively little space is required (250m² can accommodate 15 000 corms), and Saffricon will assist with training to bring new farmers up to speed,” says Corné.
Profitable vegetation from unprofitable soil
“The outgrower system will uplift especially rural communities and not only give them the means to provide for their necessities, but also assist them in establishing their own businesses with good growth possibilities. Concomitantly the farmer does not have to wait very long for his or her return, as is the case with many other crops. The above-ground plant growth and flower harvesting occur relatively quickly after the corm is planted.
“Saffron farming is also ideally suited to the South African climate – which, in the past few years, has gone through a harsh drought – as it requires much less water compared to many of the large traditional crops in South Africa,” adds Corné.
Where South Africa’s most prevalent annual crops require roughly between 500 and 800mm of irrigation per season, saffron – a winter crop grown from March to October – needs between 250 and 300mm per season.
Corné continues: “Saffron can be grown in almost any environment in conditions that are traditionally not ideally suited for most kinds of agriculture – such as in the Northern Cape. Hence it allows for the production of profitable vegetation from unprofitable soil.
“Furthermore, not only is the saffron plant frost resistant, but it is also protected from adverse weather elements such as hail for a large part of the year because of its corms being underground. The latter, and the fact that the corms are not edible, will hopefully also keep it out of the hands of petty criminals looking for food.”
In South Africa, saffron (sometimes referred to as ‘red gold’) retails for as much as R250/g (or R250 000/kg). The hefty price tag is attributed to the labour-intensive harvesting methods followed – from picking the flowers to removing the threads – which is all done by hand. According to Bennie, 150 000 flowers are needed for 1kg of saffron. “And there are three threads per flower, which means 450 000 (dried) threads are needed for 1kg of saffron. The return per hectare in year three when production peaks can vary between 1 and 5kg.”
Solid growth prospects for the world market
Local saffron farmers can expect to receive up to R200 000/kg from Saffricon for their produce, depending on quality. Bennie says compared to most imported produce that hardly has an aroma to it and is tasteless, their saffron has a distinctive flavour and aroma. This proves the good quality that they are achieving.
Bennie foresees solid growth prospects for the international saffron market, primarily because world demand far exceeds supply.
According to a report by Grand View Research, the global saffron market was valued at US$881,7 million (approximately R13,4 billion) in 2019, with expected compound annual growth of 7,3%, reaching US$1,6 billion (approximately R22,4 billion) in 2027. Grand View Research bases its findings on a growing food industry, improved living standard, and increasing consumer disposable income.
Saffron is primarily used in the food industry as a seasoning to enhance the flavour and aroma of dishes. However, it also has great use in the natural cosmetics and medicine industries and as a dye in the textile industry.
“This ‘wonder plant’ has no wastage. The corms are the assets, while the saffron threads are most popular as a spice, while the flowers have medicinal attributes and are used for perfumes and other cosmetics,” says Corné.
Iran is the largest saffron producer, accounting for approximately 90% of the world market, of which most is exported. Other countries where the product is grown include Kashmir, Afghanistan, Greece, Spain, Morocco, India, and now also South Africa.
The country’s new endeavour into saffron farming will feature in Laeveld Agrochem’s sixth season of the award-winning Nisboere, which will air in April on VIA, DStv channel 147. – Press release, Laeveld Agrochem
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