‘Green gold’: Avocado craze drives crop theft in South Africa

TZANEEN, SOUTH AFRICA (AFP) – Flashing green-and-white lights illuminated the night as the three private security vehicles rolled into the gated orchard, breaking the dark stillness enveloping the farm in northern South Africa.

Long shadows fell over the moonlit tracks as the pickup trucks rolled past hundreds of neatly-lined avocado trees, their branches laden with plump dark-green fruit almost ready for harvesting.

Patrol leader Marius Jacobs squinted over the steering wheel as he scanned the plantation for thieves.

Farmers around the quiet tropical town of Tzaneen are battling a scourge of avocado theft driven by booming global demand for the nutrient-rich fruit.

Thousands of tonnes of avocados have been stolen over the past five years, according to the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association.

The average annual losses in South Africa, one of the continent’s top avocado producers, is around USD1.6 million.

“It’s getting more and more, and it’s bakkie (truck) loads,” said Jacobs, 34, popping open a can of energy drink.

Photos show workers at the Afrupro avocado plantation in Tzaneen. PHOTOS: AFP

Canine Security personnel during a night patrol to prevent avocado theft

“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.

“This is where we caught a (minibus) fully loaded with avos,” recalled guard manager Manuel Malatjie, 28, pointing to the spot of a recently thwarted raid.

“We are trying our best (but) it’s getting bad.”

The sound of clipping filled the air as workers snipped high-hanging avocados with picking sticks, filling as many bags as possible before the midday heat.

March marks the start of South Africa’s avocado harvest season, and the run-up is a prime time for theft.

Farmer Edrean Ernst, 40, forecasts a USD17,000 loss in stolen avocados this year, despite spending millions of South African rands 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.

“It plays into the criminals’ hands.”

Allesbeste, which exports at least 1,500 tonnes of avocados annually, was targetted no less than 20 times in 2019 and 2020.

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 farm worker more than 13 hours to pick carefully.

Larger-scale operations can snatch up to 30 tonnes per robbery.

Most of the stolen produce is first-grade fruit meant for export, mainly to Europe, where it can sell to wholesalers for up to EUR10 per kilogramme.

South Africa was the world’s sixth-biggest exporter of avocados in 2019, selling fruit worth USD70.66 million, according to United Nations (UN) trade figures. Mexico ranked first, with USD2.78 billion.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Ernst. Heightened security only deters thieves for a “couple of months”, he added, after which they change tactics and hit again.

A thinly-spread police force and the towering cost of private security plays in the looters’ favour.

Allesbeste is one of the most opulent farms in the area but it can only afford fencing for half the property and less than a dozen patrol guards.

“Because it’s so expensive you try to keep it to a minimum,” Ernst explained.

Smaller farms are even more exposed. “Some guys come with big pangas (machetes),” said Phillip Mofokeng, manager of two 83-hectare orchards of tall trees bulging with fruit.

“You can’t keep the number of security that you actually want… you don’t have that budget,” he noted, pointing to an easily breached road-facing fence.

Several farms in the area were forced to cut down on security last year to make up for coronavirus-linked losses, raising further concern about the 2021 batch.

Security agents feared the theft, already driven by poverty and unemployment before the pandemic, would only get worse.

Plastic crates of avocado were stacked high in the warehouse of a fresh produce market outside Tzaneen.

Each batch was carefully labelled with a bar code linking it to its supplying farm – one of several measures to certify the produce was not stolen.