Award-Winning Producer Highlights Growth in South African Industry

On a 330-year-old farm, the NYIOOC award-winning Babylonstoren has become one of South Africa’s largest olive oil producers.

(Photo: Babylonstoren)
By Daniel Dawson
Oct. 30, 2023 15:45 UTC
(Photo: Babylonstoren)

Olive cul­ti­va­tion and olive oil pro­duc­tion are rapidly increas­ing in South Africa. According to SA Olive, olive grove sur­face area dou­bled between 2010 and 2020.

Based on the rate at which new groves are being planted, the pro­ducer asso­ci­a­tion esti­mates that olive cul­ti­va­tion is increas­ing by 20 per­cent each year, mak­ing it the fastest-grow­ing agri­cul­tural sub­sec­tor in the coun­try.

The rise of olive oil pro­duc­tion at Babylonstoren, a his­toric farm located at the foot of Simonsberg in South Africa’s Franschhoek wine val­ley, mir­rors the rise of the national sec­tor.

The farm was founded in 1692, just 30 years after the first two olive trees were imported to the coun­try. While some com­mer­cial olive grow­ing took root in South Africa in the early 1900s, the olive oil boom did not get under­way until the early 2000s.

See Also:The Best Olive Oils from South Africa

Babylonstoren was not far behind. The cur­rent owner pur­chased the farm in 2007, planted the first olive trees in 2011, and started pro­duc­ing olive oil in 2014. We’ve been on a con­tin­u­ous growth jour­ney from that point,” Petrus van Eeden, Babylonstoren’s olive and tea spe­cial­ist, told Olive Oil Times.

The owner did not plan on becom­ing an agri­cul­tural pro­ducer. The farm was ini­tially meant for per­sonal use. However, the owner invested in land­scape archi­tec­ture in 2009 and ren­o­vated sev­eral cot­tages to rent to hol­i­day­mak­ers in 2010.

The gen­e­sis of every­thing at Babylonstoren can be traced back to the heart of the farm, the 12-acre (5‑hectare) for­mal fruit and veg­etable gar­den. This included our expan­sion beyond the gar­den into agri­cul­ture,” says Van Eeden.

Olive oil pro­duc­tion was gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in South Africa,” he added. We decided to plant olive trees in 2011, and then from there, it grew to a sig­nif­i­cant part of our agri­cul­tural busi­ness.”

The com­pany is a sig­nif­i­cant pro­ducer of wine, by far its largest agri­cul­tural endeavor, along with grow­ing olives, cit­rus, dragon fruit and other crops.

Babylonstoren cul­ti­vates 62 hectares of olive groves – about 56,000 trees – mak­ing it one of South Africa’s largest olive oil pro­duc­ers. According to SA Olive, about half of the coun­try’s olive grow­ers cul­ti­vate less than five hectares.


Babylonstoren grows 14 olive varieties for table olive and oil production on 62 hecatres. (Photo: Babylonstoren)

Van Eeden said the com­pany grows about 14 vari­eties for table olives and oil pro­duc­tion. The pre­dom­i­nant vari­eties are Coratina, Don Carlo, Frantoio, Mission, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino and Arbosana.

We have our own olive oil plant and use cold extrac­tion to make our extra vir­gin olive oil,” he said.

While South Africa’s olive oil indus­try has expanded rapidly, mak­ing it the fifth-largest pro­ducer in the Southern Hemisphere, farm­ers and millers acknowl­edge that they will never com­pete with Mediterranean coun­tries for vol­ume and focus on qual­ity.

To that end, Babylonstoren earned three Gold Awards at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition for a pair of mono­va­ri­etals – Frantoio and Coratina – and its blend of five Italian vari­eties.

Christi Azurmendi Moon, Babylonstoren’s direc­tor of U.S. sales, told Olive Oil Times that awards from New York help the com­pany estab­lish a name for its extra vir­gin olive oil in new mar­kets.

We’re still evolv­ing in the United States, and these awards were a good oppor­tu­nity to show that our olive oil is as good as or bet­ter than our com­peti­tors,” she said. They make it eas­ier to sell to dis­trib­u­tors and end con­sumers.”


Modern milling equipment was one of the compay’s keys to success at the 2023 NYIOOC. (Photo: Babylonstoren)

The com­pany started export­ing wine to the U.S. in 2014. Azurmendi said the appetite for South African prod­ucts has grown in recent years and is now work­ing to expand its foot­print in the world of olive oil.

Wine has helped be a vehi­cle for olive oil in the coun­try,” Azurmendi said. As peo­ple are becom­ing more aware of South Africa as a place that makes high-qual­ity olive oil and wine, I think we’re going to see that inter­est trend­ing up.”


The main chal­lenge for the com­pany in the U.S. is to find the best chan­nels to mar­ket the olive oil to sell in super­mar­kets and food ser­vices. Azurmendi said the awards help the prod­uct stand out, play­ing an essen­tial role with dis­trib­u­tors.

In South Africa, van Eeden faces an entirely dif­fer­ent set of chal­lenges. The omnipresent issue that pro­duc­ers deal with in the coun­try is the rolling black­outs, known euphemisti­cally as load shed­ding.

It has been a tough year in terms of load shed­ding,” van Eeden said. We use gen­er­a­tors, and the fuel costs can really add up.”

He added that the farm’s pri­mary busi­ness lies in hos­pi­tal­ity, which allowed them to diver­sify their busi­ness port­fo­lio, result­ing in var­i­ous income streams.

We are for­tu­nate in the sense that a large part of our busi­ness is tourism-based. Our vine­yards and wine pro­duc­tion are also inte­gral to Babylonstoren, as is our retail busi­ness, pro­vid­ing us with a diver­si­fied rev­enue stream,” he said. While farm­ing is a core com­po­nent, our scope is broad, and we aren’t solely depen­dent on agri­cul­ture.”

Oleotourism is among the Babylonstoren’s touris­tic activ­i­ties. The farm offers an olive oil and bal­samic vine­gar tour that includes vis­its to the grove and mill, fin­ish­ing with a tast­ing and the oppor­tu­nity for guests to pro­duce their unique olive oil blend.


One of Babylonstoren’s oleotourism offerings is to craft custom blends for visitors. (Photo: Babylonstoren)

You can see peo­ple light up when they start tast­ing olive oil and dis­cover what high-qual­ity olive oil is,” van Eeden said.

He added that the end goal of the tast­ings is for peo­ple to make the con­nec­tion between olive oil and their food.

With olive oil, you need to find ways to incor­po­rate it into foods and dishes,” van Eeden said. You need to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence.”

There’s a lot of scope for oleo­tourism in South Africa, though it comes with unique chal­lenges,” he added.

Geography is the main chal­lenge, with plenty of tourist infra­struc­ture built around winer­ies, while many olive groves are not in these areas.

Van Eeden said the 2023 har­vest was below aver­age for the farm, pri­mar­ily due to many of the trees enter­ing an off-year’ in the nat­ural alter­nate bear­ing cycle of the olive tree. He esti­mated that they har­vested about 230 tons of olives.

However, the farm is actively plant­ing new trees, and he antic­i­pates a sig­nif­i­cant increase in pro­duc­tion soon. His opti­mism was buoyed by the wet win­ter and signs point­ing to a promis­ing har­vest in 2024.

We’re bank­ing on a good year. We already see some promis­ing fruit set on the trees,” he said. We expect to take our pro­duc­tion up con­sid­er­ably, pos­si­bly to 800 tons in the next three years.”

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