TZANEEN-March marks the start of South Africa’s avocado harvest season, and the run-up is a prime time for theft.
Thousands of tonnes of avocados have been stolen over the past five years, according to the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association.
The average annual loss in South Africa, one of the continent’s top avocado producers, is around 24 million rands.
“It’s getting more and more, and it’s bakkie (truck) loads,” said Patrol leader Marius Jacobs, 34, popping open a can of energy drink.
“This is not because somebody is hungry, this is a syndicate operating,” he added.
“Avo is green gold.”
Faced with increasingly frequent raids, farmers have invested heavily in fencing and private security.
Jacobs and his team, backed by dogs, now patrol more than 20 mostly avocado farms per night, complementing over 150 guards manning orchards on foot.
Gangs caught red-handed are handed over to the police.
Security Vehicle patrolling the farm .AFP/Guillem Sartorio
Farmer Edrean Ernst, 40, forecasts a 250,000 rand, loss in stolen avocados this year, despite spending millions of rand on security and fencing.
The 250 hectares of orchards belonging to the family-run Allesbeste farm are nestled between rolling hills, surrounded by lush forest and other crops.
“Because it’s very rural, police or security companies cannot patrol such a large area effectively,” Ernst told AFP.
In a single raid, a truckload of thieves can drive off with a tonne of avocados ripped from the trees — a harvest that would take the average farmworker more than 13 hours to pick carefully.
Most of the stolen produce is first-grade fruit meant for export, mainly to Europe, where it can sell to wholesalers for up to 10 euros ($12) per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
South Africa was the world’s sixth-biggest exporter of avocados in 2019, selling fruit worth $70.66 million, according to UN trade figures. Mexico ranked first, with $2.78 billion.
Workers pick the fruit at the Afrupro avocado plantation in Tzaneen. Avocados are clipped to leave a tiny stem, which deters fungus and oxidation. AFP/Guillem Sartorio
Police don’t take avocado theft “seriously enough,” Jacobs added, because “it’s not murder or a house break-in.”
Provincial police spokesman Moatshe Ngoepe argued the crime was rarely reported.
But farmers say there is more at stake than revenue loss, pointing to the thousands of jobs at risk.
Many also fear the sale of prematurely picked stolen fruit could stifle growing domestic demand