March 6, 2024

South Africa’s Agricultural Exports Soar Amid Logistical Hurdles

Despite challenges at the ports and in various export markets, the SA agricultural sector has continued to realise excellent export activity. Total agricultural exports reached a new record of .2bn in 2023, up 3% from the previous year, according to data from Trade Map.

The products that dominated the export list were citrus, maize, apples, pears, nuts, wine, soya beans, sugar, wool, grapes, berries, avocados and fruit juices. This improved export activity was a function of better volumes and prices. Pricing developments over the year were significantly more varied than the average data suggests. While fruit prices rose, grains and oilseed prices declined notably from 2022 levels.

The exports were widely spread across various key markets. The African continent remained a leading market, accounting for 38% of SA’s agricultural exports in 2023 in value terms. Asia was the second-largest market, accounting for 28% of exports, followed by the EU at 19%. The Americas region was the fourth largest (6%). The remaining 9% went to the rest of the world. The UK was one of the leading markets within this category, accounting for 7% of total exports.

The products exported to these markets were essentially the same, with the African continent and Asia importing a somewhat larger volume of maize, soya beans, wool and beef. Exports to other regions were primarily fruits and wine.

These robust export earnings were achieved despite challenges in SA ports and electricity supply and in critical export markets. Some credit must go to organised agriculture groupings, the government, Transnet and logistical groups that have worked to smooth export flows.

The agricultural industry has established forums to continuously engage with Transnet and enhance communication about problems at the ports so that the response could be swift and drive exports of high-value and perishable products. Still, more work is needed as this success has come at a significant cost to producers and various stakeholders in the value chain.

Trade surplus

SA’s trade is not one way. The country is also a notable importer of various agricultural products. In 2023 agricultural imports amounted to bn, down 4% from the previous year, primarily due to a decline in commodity prices, while the volume of imported products remained essentially unchanged from the past year.

The top imported products were rice, palm oil, wheat, poultry and whisky. These products originated primarily from Asia, the EU, the UK and the Americas. Considering this import value against the export value of .2bn, agriculture realised a record trade surplus of .2bn.

While the recent export expansion is encouraging, SA should stay focused on improving infrastructure efficiency and its export market expansion mission for the agricultural sector.

Agricultural exports remarkably improved in a year featuring severe load-shedding and big logistical infrastructure constraints at ports. In the absence of these constraints, exports could perhaps have been far higher even than the current level.

There is a need for increased investment in port and rail infrastructure and better road infrastructure in the farming towns otherwise the sector’s growth will continue to be constrained. Any expansion of SA’s export markets will require better-performing logistical infrastructure.

The ambition of broadening the export markets is particularly important as various countries increasingly turn inward and raise various kinds of protectionism. Such protectionist tendencies are seen in the EU, and in Southern Africa in countries such as Botswana and Namibia.

This means there is a need to work hard to retain existing markets in the EU and Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, while simultaneously searching for new markets.

Report from: Wandile Sihlobo