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November 19, 2008

Fruit fly causes loss of millions in Namibian exports

by Nangula Shejavali

Veggie bonanza...
Consumers and vendors in the North are making the most of the low prices of watermelons and vegetables produced at the Etunda Irrigation Scheme near Ruacana in the wake of a fruit-fly infestation. The fruit and vegetables are safe for eating, but South Africa has banned imports from Namibia to prevent the fruit flies from spreading there. This has created an over-supply on the local market and prices have dropped dramatically. In this photo, taken in Oshakati, a vendor sells produce that he bought cheaply at the Etunda Scheme.

An invasive fruit fly - Bactrocera invadens - has infected fruit and vegetables produced in northern Namibia, causing millions of dollars of losses to exporters.

After discovering the fly, South Africa closed its borders to certain agricultural products, including watermelons, butternuts, mangoes and tomatoes. Bactrocera invadens originated in Asia, and was first discovered in Africa in 2003 in Kenya.

The Etunda Irrigation Scheme, a 600-hectare producer at Ruacana in the Omusati Region, has been hard hit by the closure of the South African borders to its products, with General Manager Vilho Nghipondoka reporting losses in excess of N$4 million as a result. This is after recently suffering a blow caused by the high fuel costs, as well as crippling fertiliser costs that have increased five-fold.

Nghipondoka says Etunda is currently trying to sell off its surplus produce as cheaply as possible, having brought down the price of large watermelons from N$25 to N$10, and butternut from N$30 to N$20. The scheme exports 80 per cent of its produce to South Africa, retaining 20 per cent for the local market. In comparison with South Africa, Nghipondoka says, the Namibian market is very small and can't absorb all the produce."We therefore need to export in order to match our economies of scale, whereby we need to reach a certain level of production for profitability."

He also explained that Namibia has a niche market in South Africa because Etunda is able to supply watermelon and butternut a month before South African producers can do so."The 20 per cent supplied to the local market goes directly to local retailers, and is not exported for re-importation. This wouldn't make economical sense given the transport costs," he says.

Namibian Food (Namfo), another large exporter of agricultural produce based at Tsumeb, counts itself lucky in that most of its produce had already been exported to South Africa before the borders closed. However, Hannes Arangies, the manager at the company, cautions that in order to avoid this same problem next year, Government will need to step up to the plate.

"The borders will stay closed until we put in a delimiting survey, showing that there is a low pest prevalence. The South Africans won't open up the border until they have the numbers on the table, because this is a very aggressive fruit fly, and can become a large-scale problem," Arangies says."The government must start with this survey."

Asked whether surveys are currently being performed, Arangies said: "Some surveying is done here, but not at the large scale that is expected by the South African government. In order to start exporting again, the survey is the most important factor."

He added that at the ground level, a lot is being done, but there is a need for officials in the higher echelons of Government to take more decisive action.

Both Nghipondoka and Arangies emphasised that produce infected by the Bactrocera invadens are safe for human consumption. However, because fruit flies are classified as "quarantine organisms," which means that no fruit containing larvae may be exported on threat of rejection and total destruction of the shipment, the produce can't be exported.

Arangies added that the pesticides used on other types of fruit flies have been effective in keeping the Bactrocera invadens under control. The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry has indicated that it is aware of the problem, which is being handled by the Ministry's technical staff.

The Namibian

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