More About South African Olive Oil
The country of South Africa is the 5th largest olive producer in the Southern Hemisphere, where harvest typically occurs as early as March and can stretch into August. The country is also the largest olive oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa and the 6th largest producer in Africa behind its counterparts in the Mediterranean basin. South Africa has seen a major expansion of olive production over the last 15 years, with the total acreage of olive groves increasing over 100% from 2008-2018 and growth continuing today at an estimated 20% each year, a faster rate of expansion than any other agricultural sector in the country. In recent years table olive production outpaced imports for the first time. In 2020 South Africa produced 1.5 million liters of extra virgin olive oil; about 95% of local production qualifies as extra virgin.
Olive trees were first introduced to South Africa in the 1600s by Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company. However, olive production was unremarkable until closer to the 20th century, when Piet “California” Cillie returned from California in 1893 with olive trees. Then early in the 1900s Italian immigrants to South Africa introduced more olive trees via grafting, and a few small commercial productions began. Olive production did not truly expand widely until 1990s when Giuliano Bertrand revolutionized the industry in South Africa, including the establishment of one of the first olive nurseries in the country.
Most production today occurs in the southwest coastal region near Cape Town, with groves primarily situated in the lush valleys and foothills to the south & west of the mountain ranges that make up the Cape Fold Belt. There is also some production in the interior of the Cape Fold Belt, on the arid central plateau known as the Karoo. While the climate is quite suitable to olive farming, maintaining water infrastructure remains a major challenge for many producers. In South Africa the most widely planted olive variety is Frantoio, with many farmers also growing Coratina, FS17 (aka Favolosa), Mission, Manzanilla, Kalamata and Nocellara varieties.