SA’s first saffron season exceeds expectations

Nici De Beer

SA’s first saffron season exceeds expectations

South Africa started its first full-fledged planting of saffron this year, and the first season exceeded all expectations, with most farmers producing successful crops.

According to Bennie Engelbrecht, founding member and director of Saffricon – the company at the helm of the local saffron revolution, saffron has been planted in all nine provinces and the feedback from farmers indicates a success rate of about 95%. “Here and there farmers experienced some hiccups, but the vast majority’s 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.”

Saffron corms multiply underground under favourable conditions, on average about three times a year, with flower production usually peaking in year three. Saffron is a winter crop and corms are usually planted between March and April. The flowers (which have the blood-red saffron threads) are harvested 40 days after the corms start to sprout. Furthermore, flowers should be harvested immediately, on the day they start flowering.

Outgrower (contract grower) system based on franchise model

This year, Saffricon signed outgrower 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. Next year, however, many more contracts will be concluded thanks to the greater number of corms available to supply farmers. The outgrower contracts with farmers will be concluded on a franchise basis and according to Engelbrecht, there is huge interest from prospective saffron farmers. Corné Liebenberg, marketing director of Laeveld Agrochem, says this demand has largely been driven by the massive media interest and coverage that the cultivation of saffron received in South Africa.

Saffricon also sold 173 starter packs to 134 interested parties. A starter pack contains approximately 700 prepared corms, plant nutrition and a growing programme, soil analyses done by Nvirotek and recommendations made by Agri Technovation, a manual 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.

“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,” says Liebenberg.

Buyer interest from the Middle East

 According to Engelbrecht, there is a lot of buyer interest in their saffron, and they are 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 and, according to Statista (a supplier of market and consumer data), produced 430 tonnes in 2019. India (mainly the Kashmir region) was the second largest producer with 22 tonnes, followed by Greece with 7.2 tonnes.

ISO classification indicates that saffron is of top quality

 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. Saffron is graded according to the International Organisation for Standardisation’s ISO3632 classification for saffron. Initial indications are that Saffricon’s saffron is of a very high quality, which means that their product should fetch a good price on the international market, according to Engelbrecht.

In South Africa, saffron (also called “red gold”) sells for as much as R250/g (or R250 000/kg). This hefty consumer price is attributed to labour-intensive harvesting methods: from picking the flowers to removing the threads, everything is done by hand. About 150 000 flowers are needed for the delivery of 1kg of saffron. The yield per hectare in year three, when production reaches a peak, can vary from 1kg to 5kg.

SA climate ideal for saffron cultivation

 The farming of saffron is ideally suited to the South African climate, especially as large parts of the country have been hit by a severe drought in recent years. Saffron requires much less water than several of the large traditional crops in South Africa. Where the most prevalent annual crops require roughly between 500mm and 800mm of irrigation per season, saffron needs between 250mm and 300mm per season.

Saffron is primarily used in the food industry as a seasoning to enhance flavour and aroma but also has great use in the natural cosmetics and natural medicine industries, and as a dye in the textile industry.

Saffricon will soon launch new franchise opportunities for the cultivation of saffron. Those who have already put their starter packs to the test will be given preference. Information regarding starter packs for 2022 will also be available soon. For more information, please keep an eye on their website at www.saffricon.co.za, or send an email to info@saffricon.com.