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Israelis back South African fruit venture

Workers at the Sharon fruit packing plant, established in the Western Cape region of South Africa through an Israeli initiative. (SwellenSharon Farms)

Workers at the Sharon fruit packing plant, established in the Western Cape region of South Africa through an Israeli initiative. (SwellenSharon Farms)

CAPE TOWN, July 7 (JTA) — An Israeli initiative aims to help a black empowerment project in South Africa play a major role in supplying a rare fruit to the world market. The Sharon fruit, one of hundreds of varieties of persimmon, until recently was supplied almost exclusively by Israel. But Eran Rotem, an Israeli farmer who works for the biggest grower, packer and marketer of the Sharon fruit in Israel, has been in South Africa for the past 18 months helping set up a local venture that can produce the fruit for the international market in the off-season. Rotem says the Sharon is “the best variety” of persimmon in terms of shelf life, taste and sugar content. “It’s seedless and you can eat it firm like an apple, unlike other varieties where you may have to wait until it’s soft,” he said. The persimmon is native to China and has been introduced to Japan, Europe and the United States over centuries, but the Sharon variety was found in Israel only some 50 years ago. Since then, it has been growing mainly in Israel, a little in Spain and now in South Africa, Rotem said. It used to be that the Sharon was harvested only in the northern hemisphere from October to March. But the Mor Group, an Israeli company that specializes in the fruit, figured there could be “huge potential” if it could found a way to supply the fruit year-round. In the mid-1990s, one of the Mor Group’s owners, Yair Kaplan, began investigating the potential of southern hemisphere countries such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. He found that South Africa’s Western Cape region had a climate similar to Israel’s and was the most suitable area in the country for cultivating Sharons, Rotem said. Rotem and his partners established a growers group together with some South African farmers. The first shipment of plants came from Israel, but the group then started a local nursery, and year after year planted more trees and more orchards. Since then, South Africa has become the chief off-season Sharon supplier to overseas markets. Rotem’s group — the only ones growing the fruit in South Africa — produced 600 tons of Sharon fruit this year, and hope to reach 30,000 tons in four years’ time. The initiative includes two farms in rural areas of the Western Cape by the name of “SwellenSharon,” a partnership that belongs 51 percent to the Israelis and 49 percent to a South African group. The latter’s shares are in the process of being transferred to a consortium of black businessmen, a foundation that will decide how to use profits to help the community and a worker’s trust. After establishing the orchards, Rotem said, “we realized we’d have to invest in a dedicated Sharon fruit pack-house for storage and packing of the fruit, as it’s a very sensitive fruit to handle.” Cynthia Tobias, who represents the local community on the board of Arisa, the pack-house holding company, said people in the area were “very glad” about the project. “No. 1 is job creation. Also, we have very poor people on the farms, and Arisa supports most of the community upliftment projects,” she said. Because the Sharon is picked later in the season than other deciduous fruit, it helps extend employment opportunities for seasonal workers, a much-needed fillip for South Africa’s poverty-stricken rural areas. Rotem arrived in Cape Town 18 months ago to oversee this multi-million dollar development. His stint is due to expire next August, when “hopefully the team that we are training now will be able to take over.” But he emphasizes that Israel intends to maintain a hands-on approach, with the marketing of the fruit being handled by an Israeli company, Mor International. As far as the industry goes, “The sky’s the limit; it’s far from fulfilling its potential,” Rotem said. “In Europe and the States many people are still not familiar with the fruit — and as soon as they taste it, they’ll be customers.”

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