Having started its first full-fledged planting of saffron this year, South Africa’s first ever season of the ‘red gold’ crop is now in full swing and it has exceeded all expectations, with many farmers having produced successful crops.
Bennie Engelbrecht, founding member and director of Saffricon, the company driving the local saffron revolution says saffron has been planted in all nine provinces and that the feedback from farmers indicates a success rate of about 95%.
“Here and there farmers experienced some hiccups, but the vast majority of crops were successful and produced flowers. In many cases, year one’s harvest yielded more flowers than initially expected.”
“This bodes well for the next seasons’ harvests and the expansion of the industry,” he adds.
The farming of saffron, known as red gold and regarded as the most expensive spice in the world, has been found to be ideally suited to the South African climate as it can survive under extreme drought conditions.
According to Saffricon, most prevalent annual crops require roughly between 500mm and 800mm of irrigation per season, while saffron needs between 250mm and 300mm per season.
It is also a winter crop and its corms, usually planted between March and April, multiply underground under favourable conditions, on average about three times a year with flower production usually peaking in the third year.
The flowers (which have the blood-red saffron threads) are harvested 40 days after the corms start to sprout and they should be harvested immediately, on the day they start ‘flowering’.
Engelbrecht points out that there is huge interest from prospective saffron farmers and as a result, Saffricon has signed out-grower contracts with three farmers: one in Laingsburg and two in Pretoria, with plantings ranging from about 6 000 corms to just over 150 000 corms.
The company also plans to conclude many more contracts in the upcoming year given the growing number of corms available to supply to farmers. The out-grower contracts with farmers will be concluded on a franchise basis.
According to Corné Liebenberg, marketing director of Laeveld Agrochem, this demand has largely been driven by the massive media coverage that the cultivation of saffron has received in the country.
“For everyone I talk to, the most attractive part of the current offer is the fact that they ‘only need to get the corms in the ground’ and that Saffricon buys back the saffron, as well as the corms after year three. So, there is a certain outcome that gives peace of mind,” Liebenberg said.
Saffricon has also sold 173 starter packs to 134 interested parties. The starter pack contains about 700 prepared corms, plant nutrition and a growing programme which entails soil analyses done by Nvirotek and recommendations made by Agri Technovation, to help with cultivation as well as support from Saffricon.
“The starter packs are ideal, as they allow prospective farmers to test the cultivation of saffron all over South Africa in different growing conditions before considering farming on a larger scale,” says Engelbrecht.
He points out that there is a lot of buyer interest in saffron, with Saffricon currently negotiating with various parties in the Middle East.
“The world demand for saffron is much greater than what is produced annually, which is good news for local production. Iran is by far the largest producer. According to Statista [a supplier of market and consumer data], the country produced 430 tonnes in 2019,” notes Saffricon.
India, mainly the Kashmir region, is the second largest producer yielding 22 tonnes, followed by Greece with 7.2 tonnes.
Engelbrecht believes that South Africa has the potential to become one of the world’s top suppliers of saffron, provided it is done on a judicious and orderly basis.
He says the plant is graded according to the International Organisation for Standardisation’s ISO3632 classification for saffron, and that initial indications are that Saffricon’s saffron is of a very high quality, meaning that their product should fetch a good price on the international market.
In South Africa, saffron sells for as much as R250/g (or R250 000/kg). This hefty consumer price is attributed to its labour-intensive harvesting methods which entail picking the flowers and removing the threads by hand.
About 150 000 flowers are needed to deliver 1kg of saffron. Additionally, the yield per hectare in year three, when production reaches a peak, can vary from 1kg to 5kg.
Saffron is mainly used in the food industry as a seasoning spice to enhance flavour and aroma. It has great use in the natural cosmetics and natural medicine industries, and is also used as a dye in the textile industry.
* Palesa Mofokeng is a Moneyweb intern.