By Percy Rubaya
MBUYA Rosemary Tendi (70) of Rusitu Valley in Chimanimani, eastern Zimbabwe, has been braving crispy cold mornings in the past few weeks to make sure that she monitors the harvesting of oranges from her backyard orchard.
The weather here has always been colder than most parts of Zimbabwe, but in recent years extreme coldness is being experienced occasionally.
However, this does not deter Mbuya Tendi from doing the work of leading a pack of labour from her family and few others contracted from surrounding villages to harvest the crop and send it to the market in Harare, some 400km away.
It has been a routine for the past four decades for her and other villagers who rely on citrus fruit as a commercial commodity.
According to ZimTrade, in Zimbabwe citrus fruits are commercially grown in areas which include Beitbridge, Mazowe Valley, Chegutu and parts of Manicaland province, such as Headlands and Chipinge.
Mbuya Tendi’s Rusitu Valley takes the distinction of being the biggest communal area that has thriving backyard citrus orchards.
Their contribution to the national output has been noted. So, too, have been problems such as technical knowledge, pests, storage and market.
In particular, markets have been a problem for Zimbabwe’s farmers, both small and large, with the country failing to tap into the global markets despite high quality of the crop.
The situation is set to change considerably.
A new citrus export deal that Zimbabwe recently signed with China is expected to boost the citrus industry and grow its share in the world market, with farmers across the country set to benefit from the opening of the vast Chinese market.
China imports over one million tonnes of citrus products worth about US$594 million and Zimbabwe could export a huge share of this.
According to a recent statement by ZimTrade: “The good thing about Zimbabwe taping into the Chinese market is that it will ease the over reliance on the European market, allowing the country to diversify and hedge against price volatility by concentrating on one market.”
Citrus fruits are relatively rich in Vitamin C and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a boom in international demand for citrus due to the immune boosting benefits of vitamin C.
According to the Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa (CGA), demand for lemons from overseas markets has doubled by April 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.
The Zimbabwe Citrus Growers Association also reported in June 2022 that large shipments of lemons to Russia and Middle East.
CGA has been observing the Southern African citrus exports and forecast that this year’s soft citrus production will reach 2 million cartons with 1.2 million cartons already packed, surpassing the 700,000 cartons packed over the same period last year.
The biggest markets in the world include United States of America constituting 9 percent of global imports, Russia, Germany and Netherlands at 8 percent each, France (7 percent), United Kingdom (5 percent), China (4 percent) and Canada (3 percent).
However, the country, with just over 3 700 hectares under live citrus fruits, would need to increase the hectarage under citrus fruits if it is to meet the international markets demand.
Being a capital intensive industry, there will be need for government support by way of long term capital and low-interest rates as well as land for expansion.
The citrus industry in Zimbabwe is poised for growth and contribute significantly to the country’s Growth Domestic Product.
Currently, the industry is contributing around 4 percent of GDP and statistics show that the country produced 138,195 tonnes in 2020 and that it has been growing at a rate of 3.03 percent since 1971.
Demand for citrus fruits has been high the world over since the advent of COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019 due to their richness in Vitamin C, which is highly recommended as a useful remedy for the pandemic.
Zimbabwe has been largely importing to Europe and the Middle East, Russia, EU, UK and the North, West, UAE and the Far East where there are ready markets.
The country is however, far behind in terms of meeting the export demand producing about 51 000 tonnes for export, according to the Citrus Growers Association.
According to Global Trade Review, a carton of lemons was fetching between US$50 and US$60 in the Middle East in April 2020 against the normal price range of US$15 to US$20 per carton, and the firming of the prices will come in handy for Zimbabwe.
In order to meet the new requirements under regulation (EU 2019-2027), which were introduced to establish uniform conditions for the implementation of special measures against a range of citrus pests that were a known pathway into the EU of serious plant health problems which could damage EU agriculture or the environment, need to be dealt with to ensure easy passage of the fruits to different export destinations.
These include stringent requirements covering the export of citrus to prevent the introduction of citrus leaf spot, non-European fruit fly, and the false codling moth among others.
These pests occur in Zimbabwe and two of them-citrus black spot and false codling moth, are frequently being intercepted in the international markets, something that needs the urgent attention of all stakeholders.
The Chinese have on their part, have noted the Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitate), Natal fruit fly (Ceratitis rosa), False Codling Moth (Thaumatitibia leucotreta), Bunch mite (Brevipalpus californicus) and Oriental fruit fly (Bactrocera dorsalis) as some of the most problematic pests.
They also noted the Leaf spot (Phaeoramularia angolensis) and African greening disease (Candidatus liberobacter africanum).
Because our exported citrus fruits need to be free of the designated pests and diseases, there is also urgent need to identify and agree on actions to be taken by private sector operators at all stages from production to export.
In the long term, there is also need to invest in chemicals production plants in the country in order to cut down on production costs.
Currently the industry imports all of its chemicals and all research on citrus production is done in the United Kingdom and Germany.
The local production of chemicals will reduce the cost of production of the fruits and ensure maximum turnover for the farmers as well as the country.
The opening up of the Chinese market will mean more players will be exporting and also give exporters diversity in terms of export destinations and hedge against price instability in the different regions.