In a move that is likely to place the Eastern Cape at the forefront of hazelnut production in the African continent, global confectionary giant, the Ferrero Group, and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) have launched a 24 hectare (ha) hazelnut pilot project in the Queenstown area.
The 24 ha plantation with 16,500 trees, already the largest in Africa, is part of Ferrero’s new agricultural development for South Africa to create a supply of high-quality nuts for their sought after products.
Ferrero Group to develop hazelnut plantations in SA
Initial steps by the Ferrero Group to develop hazelnut plantations in South Africa included the establishment of pilot and trial projects. A pilot site with a group of six community members in Tarkastad, the Mitrock CC, has been established.
“Developed in collaboration with ECDC, land preparations were done and hazelnut trees were planted by May last year. Ongoing scientific evaluation of the performance of these trees will be done over the next four years in collaboration with the Mitrock group. This is an innovative project which is the first example of hazelnut cultivation in the African continent,” says project coordinator Elrita Venter.
Ferrero Group 4th in the world
The group, which occupies fourth place on the world confectionary market, is working on trial sites to verify the suitability of South African climatic and soil conditions for hazelnut cultivation. There are currently four trial sites operating in South Africa.
3,200 trees in Dordrecht in Eastern Cape
There is a 9 ha trial site with 6,700 trees in Reitz in the Free State, a 2 ha site with 1,400 trees in Carolina in Mpumalanga, a 2 ha site with 2,100 trees in Underberg in KwaZulu/Natal and a 5 ha site with 3,200 trees in Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape.
“The 24 ha in Tarkastad is only the first phase of the project. A second phase of 24 ha will follow shortly. Ferrero has signed an off-take agreement with the Mitrock CC which is a promise that the chocolate maker will buy its produce after harvest.
The Mitrock CC owns the project while it is managed by Agrisudafrica who are in charge of Ferrero operations in South Africa. The agreement will ensure that Mitrock has market access. ECDC’s ultimate goal is to ensure that Ferrero establishes a processing plant in the province and Mitrock to have a stake in it,” says ECDC programme manager Phakamisa George.
The Ferrero group has 28 operating companies in 26 countries and 15 productive plants in 12 countries. Once the pilot becomes successful, its nuts will end up in more than 40 Ferrero products which include Ferrero Roche chocolates, Raffaello, tic tac and kinder surprise.
Currently no hazelnuts in SA
There are currently no hazelnuts in South Africa and Ferrero had to import trees from Italy and South America to start the Queenstown pilot. The trees were kept in quarantine for two years while soil preparation and analysis was conducted. Irrigation was set up and the area was fenced before planting commenced. The community received part-time jobs from this phase.
Agrisudafrica head of hazelnut development in South Africa, Tommaso De Gregorio explains that the province needs to plant at least 3 000ha of hazelnut for Ferrero to establish a processing plant here.
“Ferrero has also established a nursery in Springvallei farm in Franklin, KwaZulu/Natal some 23km from Kokstad to ensure future supply of plants. It is a 512 ha farm of which 150ha are arable. The remaining land is important for water catchment and is rented back as grazing land,” says De Gregorio.
Operations in Argentina, Chile, Ukraine, Georgia, Australia
With an annual turnover of 6 billion euros in 2006/2007 and 25 000 employees Ferrero has also spread its operations into Argentina, Chile, Ukraine, Georgia and Australia. The company has already planted 3,000 ha in Chile of its best hazelnut varieties with encouraging results. Local farmers in these countries have planted a further 7,000 ha with hazelnut plants purchased from the Ferrero nursery.
“Chile’s agronomic and climatic conditions are similar to South Africa,” adds De Gregorio. In Georgia, 4,000 ha were purchased by Ferrero in a very productive hazelnut area and 2,000 ha have already been planted.
SA needs to develop new crops
Venter says South Africa needs to develop new crops and move away from its dependence on maize and cattle and diversify its agricultural offering. This will help the province to spread its risk and income all year round.
De Gregorio explains that South Africa has suitable climate conditions together with interesting business conditions, financial support and infrastructure to develop new initiatives. Hazelnut production “has a high impact on the local economy in employment, income and knowledge transfer.”
SA to compete with other southern hemisphere countries
She says South Africa is in competition with other southern hemisphere countries such as Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia in Hazelnut production. The country has the potential to grow alternative crop types.