Harvesting Better Futures through Blueberries

January 26, 2021

Nellah Mabasa dreams of owning her own farm in South Africa, where she grew up.  Although she earned her university degree in agronomy – the science of soil management and crop production – there were few job options after graduation, so she began teaching high school.

Now, after receiving education and career support through the OZblu Academy, a subsidiary of agriculture company United Exports, 26-year-old Mabasa is closer than ever to achieving her long-term ambition.

Her path back to the profession she loves started just over two years ago, when she and five other young South Africans earned graduate placement opportunities through the OZblu Academy, which hand-picks promising future agronomists, horticulturists, and finance officers for career development in South Africa’s agricultural industry.

After a year of practical experience in the company’s blueberry fields and packhouses, Mabasa graduated from the program in January 2020.  United Exports’ parting gift? The offer of a full-time job to her and five other graduates.

“I never would have had the chance to work in agriculture without this program,” Mabasa says, pruning a blueberry bush in a field outside of Cape Town. She has also already set out her professional goals: “I want to help farmers in the field to decide what they need to do to their soil, how much water to use, and how to control pests.”


The blueberry industry is one of South Africa’s fastest growing agricultural sectors. The super-food has the potential to help boost job creation in South Africa’s berry growing regions, and IFC’s work with United Exports – one of South Africa’s biggest blueberry producers – can help make that happen.  

In January 2019, IFC, the Dutch entrepreneurial development bank (FMO), and the Danish Sustainable Development Goals Investment Fund, assisted in funding United Exports. IFC followed up this funding through its COVID-19 fast-track facility, along with FMO, to help the company continue to invest in expansion during these challenging times. 

With IFC’s support, United Exports plans to expand the size of its blueberry fields in South Africa in 2021 and create an estimated 150 new permanent jobs—and roughly 1,250 seasonal jobs, from the fields to the finance department, during peak picking season. Many of those positions will be filled by women like Mabasa.

Significant Growth Potential

Agriculture and agribusiness are an important source of jobs in South Africa. The country’s exports of agricultural goods increased from $4.4 billion to over $10.6 billion over the past decade, according to IFC’s 2019 South Africa Country Private Sector Diagnostic , which examines opportunities to leverage private investment for growth and job creation.  

Fruits and nuts have been the largest export sector, and the berry sector has some of the most significant growth potential, according to the report.  Within South Africa, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture estimates the blueberry sector employs 5,700 people.


Here we share stories and photos captured in November 2019 from United Exports’ employees. Note: Images were captured in November 2019, before social distancing and other measures were put in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo courtesy of United Exports

Women in Western Cape, South Africa pick blueberries at a farm that feeds produce to United Exports, a family-owned trading and holding company that produces, grades, packs, cools, markets and sells blueberries under its proprietary OZblu brand. In South Africa, United Exports, in addition to its licensed growers, operates more than nine of its own licensed blueberry farms and two central packhouses.  Blueberries are sensitive to rain, hail, wind, and dust, so most in South Africa are grown under protective nets.

Photo taken in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/IFC.

Pontso Lethena started as a blueberry picker at a farm outside Cape Town that grows blueberries for United Exports. Today she’s a team leader and oversees 65 fellow blueberry harvesters who pick an average of 50 kilograms a day during the July-to-December season.

“I love being outside supporting my team,” says Lethena, a single mother with two children. Before joining United Exports, Lethena cleaned houses for families, earning less money. Now, she says she plays a leadership role and has increased her income.

To help keep track of blueberry quality and quantity, Lethena marks the number of buckets collected by each of her team members.  A quality control team then prepares the blueberries for the packing plant.

Photo taken in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/IFC.

Simphiwe Elliot Qeza, right, started picking blueberries for one of United Exprts’ feeder farms outside Cape Town in 2017. He now leads 49 people in the field. He invests his farm earnings in his small fish-and-chip shop nearby—a business he says he could never maintain without his income from the blueberry farm.

“My dream has always been to have my own business,” Qeza says, as he records the number of buckets his colleagues harvested. “Now it’s a reality I can keep growing.”

Photo courtesy of United Exports

The appearance and taste of blueberries is partly determined by what nutrients the farmers feed the soil.  Farmers’ planting and cultivation process can affect blueberries’ crunchiness, juiciness, flavor and shelf-life.  Here, a team prepares freshly picked proprietary OZblu® blueberries to be sent to the United Exports Western Cape packing plant for packaging and distribution in South Africa and for export.

Photo courtesy of United Exports

United Exports’ South African employees are part of one of the leading producers in South Africa, producing significant volumes for each season. The company’s employee numbers have increased over the past five years, reflecting the blueberry industry’s growth in South Africa of 51 percent over the past decade. South Africa is the twelfth largest blueberry exporter globally, according to the South Africa Berry Producers’ Association.

Photo courtesy of United Exports

A sorting team at United Exports’ Western Cape packhouse prepares blueberries for delivery to South African retailers and primarily for export to the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and on occasion to the United States.  Around 60 percent of the employees in the packhouse are women.

But some of United Exports’ employees never get involved in the blueberry production process – like Moagi Molale, 26, an OZblu Academy graduate and one of the newest members of the finance team. He processes invoices and manages customer accounts in the Johannesburg packhouse – an important step toward becoming a qualified accountant. His earnings also helped him build his mom’s dream home.

“This is a unique program,” Molale says. “I love getting exposure to the working environment. Most of us don’t have that but United Exports has made that possible for me.”

Photo courtesy of United Exports

Before blueberries land on customers’ kitchen tables, United Exports’ independent quality control team at the packhouse tests the berries’ color, firmness, acidity, and size. Higher acid levels mean the berry will last longer on the shelf and ship successfully. Export markets also love a crunchy berry.

Portia Sephesu, 23, an OZblu Academy graduate and new hire, works with bees and plant pollination. Her hands-on learning experience encompassed the entire blueberry cycle, from seed to fruit, and was critical to her experience as a horticulturist.

“My dad took me to school as I grew up and now, I can help him in retirement,” said Sephesu, based at a United Exports farm in Limpopo province. “Plus, I am more confident because of this program and know I can have an impact.”

Published January 2021