Love ’em Or Hate ’em, Litchis Are South Africa’s Newest Export To U.S.

Written by Dana Sanchez

South Africa this month exported to the U.S. its first air shipment of fresh litchis — a fruit beloved by the Chinese but relatively unknown in the U.S.

The litchi industry has been trying to gain access to the U.S. market for years, said exporter Cornel van der Merwe of Zest Fruit in an interview with FreshFruitPortal.

When it comes to litchis, it seems like people either love them or hate them, according to VeganTestLab. Many Americans may already have tasted South African litchis thanks to Ceres, a well-known and high quality South African fruit juice brand that’s been around since the ’80s and has a litchi fruit juice blend. Ceres uses unsweetened juice in its products, sourced mainly from fruit grown in the Ceres Valley in the Western Cape,

South Africa exports about half the litchis it grows, mostly to the European Union — U.K., France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Litchi exports to the U.S. represent a major step in South Africa’s efforts to expand export markets, positioning the country as one of the significant exporters in the world, according to the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The country also has its sights set on more exports to the Middle East, China and India.

“The Chinese just love a litchi, so that would be a very good market for us,” van der Merwe said.

Meeting U.S. import regulations key part in negotiating market access, according to SAnews.gov. This included the litchis being irradiated in Atlanta on their arrival by air in the U.S., according to a South African press release.

“This was really a great collective effort and a special success story for our industry,’’ said Don Westcott, chairman of the South African Litchi Growers’ Association Market Access Committee.

There is good market potential in the U.S. where the fruit is relatively unknown, said South African litchi exporter Van der Merwe.

South Africa is looking into growing more litchi varieties that could be popular in China.

The South African growing season starts around mid-November in the eastern regions, and ends in the northern areas toward late January.

Litchis are the forgotten fruit. They don’t get as much attention as they should, BusinessStandard reports. They have substantial export potential, much of it untapped.

“The litchi is still a true exotic. It’s still an unknown product for most consumers,” said Gregoire Vicherat of Netherlands-based produce exporter Halls B.V. The company exports 100,000 boxes of litchis a year and is South Africa’s largest litchi exporter, Gregoire said in a FreshPlaza interview.

“We have 100 hectares of (our) own plantations in South Africa,” Vicherat said. Originally a South African company, Halls manages the entire chain from cultivation to packaging, ripening and distribution of the subtropical fruit. Halls also markets other growers’ produce. Its litchi plantations are in Nelspruit, east of Johannesburg, and Tzaneen, in the north.

Globally, litchis are grown year round, and they’re finding their way into stores more and more, said Lieve Michielsen with Belgian importer Special Fruit, in a FreshPlaza interview.

The market for litchis increased sharply in 2014, Michielsen said. “The volumes are growing immensely. In 2014, we sold more than double the volume of 2013.”

“The lychee is getting more well-known, especially compared to its hairy cousin, the rambutan … it can’t really be called an exotic anymore.”

Michielsen said he imports litchis mainly from South Africa, Madagascar, Thailand and Mauritius. They arrive mostly arrive by plane throughout the year from all over the world. In December and January though, supply is also from South Africa.

Although Special Fruit offers the litchis year round, there’s “a huge peak in December. “It’s still a typical end-of-year exotic, but particularly in wholesale, it’s getting a permanent position in the product range.”

 

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About Dana Sanchez
Dana Sanchez was born in South Africa and is a U.S. citizen. After working in advertising, she went back to school and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. As a business writer, she won regional and national writing awards. As editor of a daily newspaper, she coordinated staff writers, freelancers and photographers in the fast-paced environment of daily news. Dana was an editor at Moguldom Media Group for four years, helping to build and manage a team of staff and freelance writers. She works now on Moguldom.com for Nubail Ventures. A long-distance hiker and cyclist, she writes about the business of technology.