A prediction a year ago by nurseryman Colin Rand that the demand for South African-grown macadamia trees would take off in the SA Development Countries region has become a reality, evidenced by thousands of trees from his business in Ifafa Beach on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast already growing on the banks of Zambia’s Kafue River.
With more than 30 000 macadamia nut trees delivered to Zambia and another 90 000 ordered between now and the end of the year, managing partner at T&T Agric Colin Rand says opportunities in regions to the north of South Africa are “infinite”.
Rand said exporting trees to Zambia, Malawi and northern Mozambique offered new opportunities for South Africa’s burgeoning macadamia sector, particularly in the export of trees and making SA technical expertise available to the new growers in the Southern African Development Countries (SADC).
Rand added that offering macadamia trees at a more affordable price for potential farmers in South Africa was a priority for him between now and next year.
“My ultimate vision is to supply macadamia tree nurseries in this country with micro-grafted trees to grow out. Our trees cost R30 for a micro-grafted tree and R60 for a ready-to-plant unit. What I really want is for the cost per tree to come down – so I want to halve the price of the trees, and I am hoping to achieve that goal over the next 18 months,” he said.
The main motivation behind this plan was not only to make high quality micro-grafted trees available to sugarcane growers in the province who were yet to make the change to the nut crop due to the high orchard start-up costs, but to increase the number of trees for export to the SADC region.
“The problem with the sugar industry in KwaZulu-Natal is everyone wants to convert to macadamias,” said Rand. “What we must do is reduce our costs per unit and have trees available at such a lucrative price it won’t deter cane growers who haven’t got macs in the ground yet to be able to fund and finance their conversion.”
Rand, who took over the running of the nursery just 18 months ago, has grown the operation from 240 000 trees under cover to more than 500 000, with plans to more than double that number by next year.
“The Zambia pie on its own is huge. We have farmers there planting 100ha at a time compared with here, where growers are putting in macadamias at 10ha at a time,” he said.
Climatic conditions in Zambia are not as ideal as along the coast, but most of the farms planting the T&T Agric trees are along the Kafue River, where the soils are rich and fertile. “The quality of the nuts is affected by altitude. They have a more intensive growing season and milder winters, but their biggest challenge is a very dry spring. That is the hottest time of the year there – September, October and November – so that will affect the late flowering varieties, like the Beaumonts and A4s, to a point. But what they do have is a lot of water for irrigation from the Kafue River.”
The trees are transported to Zambia in refrigerated trucks and can take anything from a week to nine days to arrive on the farms.
“The problem with putting them into a normal truck is if the driver parks the truck or the vehicle breaks down, the trees will cook. For example, during this last trip the load was delayed at the Livingstone border post for three days. Without the refrigerated truck we would have had to make a plan to water the trees. Instead, condensation was happening by itself inside the reefer. In fact, the bags were wet when they arrived in Zambia. I think seven trees died in-field, so not one was affected by the trip,” Rand said.
Maximising the load, while at the same time avoiding overloading, had resulted in a unique innovation developed at the nursery.
“We fabricated special tables to maximise our load space in the truck. The tables, which we have called maxi-plan pallets, allow us to double the available floor space. And because we have used paper bags for the micro-grafted trees – which are about 40cm tall when they travel, or eight months old from seed – and our specially formulated lightweight substrate, we have brought the weight of the load right down. Also sending young trees that have been in bags for a shorter space of time means they are able to grow with juvenile vigour once they are planted, because the units are not pot-bound, and they haven’t developed the bonsai effect.”
The paperwork linked to the export process starts with the customers in Zambia first acquiring an import permit from the Zambian Department of Agriculture. On receipt of the import permit number, South Africa’s Department of Agriculture will visit the Ifafa Beach nursery to inspect the load before issuing the necessary transit paper work.
Officials check for root pathogens, noxious weeds and the presence of specific insects.
“We are accredited with the Seedling Growers’ Association of South Africa (SGASA) and the South African Macadamia Growers’ Association (SAMAC), so the process is not so bad for us. Accreditation means we keep our standards very high. We conform to the stipulated criteria linked to phyto-sanitary requirements set down by SGASA. Our water growing medium is also sent regularly to the Quality Management Services (QMS) laboratory as prescribed by the accreditation audit,” he said.
The growing medium used by the nursery is coco coir.
“The way we are propagating trees allows us to cut our turnaround time by at least half while being able to supply robust and healthy units,” said Rand.
But there are challenges, he added.
“Compared with local clients, especially those in our area, where we can send the units that are ready and then wait before sending the rest, for export, the entire load of 10 000 trees has to be up to specification all at the same time. We are new exporters, this last load was only our third, and it really was very stressful. Also, it takes an entire day, from 6am to 7pm, to load the truck using my whole labour force of 45 people. It is a slow and laborious process as each tree has to be packed nicely so it isn’t damaged. We are also the only commercial nursery exporting micro-grafted trees grown out in substrate. What this has allowed us to do, though, is greatly reduce the timeline and to be able to transport a far lighter product.”
The father of three, who spends time in his vegetable garden to relieve the stress of his working day, believes the macadamia industry will be the saving grace for KwaZulu-Natal’s agriculture economy. “My order book is more than full. I am getting calls from all over every day for trees. The challenge in the nursery now is to refine our systems because we want to expand again. We are doubling our labour force and looking to halve the price of the trees. There are a lot of balls in the air and I cannot afford to drop one, because if I do, then my customers lose money and time. We are working on computer systems to guide us in relation to timelines because ultimately, I want to be in a position that when a farmer phones me for trees, I have stock available on the floor in the nursery immediately for him. There is just no room for error now.”
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