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Tourism News
Olive oil market grows in leaps and bounds, writes Hopewell Radebe
27 January 2011

Farmers in SA's mohair capital, the Eastern Cape, are taking a leaf out of the books of their Western Cape counterparts and are diversifying into olives and olive oil production. Alicedale in the Cacadu Dis-trict Municipality is famous for merino sheep, goats and cattle farming, but farmer Craig Rip-pon decided to break with a 100- year family tradition and started planting olive trees instead. "Every agricultural expert I know in the province told me the olive trees would not grow well and that the investment was a waste of money and time," Mr Rippon says. But when at the turn of the century some Western Cape grape farmers and wine producers began looking to the olive industry as a viable way to augment their business, he decided to give it a try as well. According to the South African Olive Industry Association, the industry is still in its infancy. In 2000, olive oil production stood at 2 000 tons, and by 2009 had reached 7 000 tons. Although imports fluctuate year on year, since 2004 there has been a 40% increase in olive oil imports and a 275% increase in table olive imports. Traditionally, SA has concentrated on table olive plantings, but in recent years this has swung in favour of olive oil production. At present, the plantings consist of 75%-80% oil varieties. Mr Rippon says around 2000 and 2001 most of his neighbours were selling their farms to "new investors with cheque books" who wanted more land to start game farming. This has bolstered the province's tourism industry but has almost killed its mohair and wool production. As the olive orchards grew, he got rid of the angora goats that "wreaked havoc" eating his olive trees, and kept only livestock that was easy to control with a simple fence. He focused on merino sheep for wool and cattle for beef on his farm, Springvale. Mr Rippon attributes his success to the goodwill and sharing spirit of the Western Cape olive farmers. He singles out South African Olive Growers Association technical committee head John Scrimgeour for sharing his experience and knowledge. Although the Eastern Cape has not seen the uptake of olive farming and production on a large scale, Mr Rippon says the initial interest was huge because former agriculture and land affairs MEC Max Mamase had "strongly supported" the idea of exploring new agricultural products and markets. At the time, the provincial government was particularly interested in cultivating olive production as it has potential to increase the number of seasonal jobs. During the harvest period, olive farming requires manual labour, Mr Rippon says, adding that he then hires an additional 40 workers. After 10 years of patience and "trial and error", his venture is just about breaking even. The business would have done better had it not been for scarce rains which forced him to seek alternative irrigation methods to keep the livestock and the olive orchards "barely alive but productive". Mr Rippon's groves cover roughly 34ha, and contain about 7 000 olive trees, and he is now cultivating 12 different varieties of olives. In a good year, his groves can produce more than 100 tons of olives, yielding 4 5001 of olive oil. He produces the Springvale Extra Virgin Olive Oil brand. The Eastern Cape's arid conditions aside, entering the olive processing industry has been another hurdle Mr Rippon has had to face. Most supermarkets in SA import cheap and good quality olive oil products, while processing olive oil locally is costly, which reduces the competitiveness of local products. The Mediterranean basin countries - Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece - supply most of the South African market. If Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco are included, these seven countries account for 90% of the world's olive production. Cacadu municipality's development manager, Duma Magxwalisa, says although the district is still the mohair capital of the world - both in terms of quality and quantity, with 95% of the world's mohair passing through Port Elizabeth - the authorities have been encouraged to see new business ventures such as olive production. Italy is the leading importer of mohair, followed by China and the UK. "Undoubtedly (Mr Rippon's) success will attract other investors, which will be great for job creation in the district," Mr Magxwalisa says.

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