Elezane Industries – snail exports
Living proof of the adage that the best ideas in life are simple is Elezane Industries, a small BEE company exporting live South African snails to France and Spain.
A HIGHLY-PRIZED grey snail, the Helix aspersa Muller, which apparently hitchhiked its way to the Cape on vines brought across by the Huguenots, is winging its way back to French dinner tables courtesy of small Hermanus-based company, Elezane Industries.
After being retrenched in 2004, former Tuna Marine MD, Robert Oktober, and production manager, Shelldon Breda, set up their new venture in partnership with a French expert who alerted them to the suitability of local gastropods for export.
’While it might sound like taking coals to Newcastle, France and Spain have over harvested – almost depleting their stocks – and have been forced to import snails from all over the world,’ says Oktober. ’We have something unique and the market wants more of it.’
Business has been anything but sluggish [sorry!], with the company exporting 30 tons this past season alone – an impressive figure, considering the average weight per snail is 0,005kg!
The operation begins with some 350 snail pickers who harvest the snails from August to January. As snails are prevalent on grapevines and in fruit orchards, the company concentrates on the Grabouw area which is one of ten ’hot spots’ countrywide where viable quantities have been identified.
Oktober enthuses about the benefits of the business for all parties, excluding the snails, that is: ’Farmers particularly have been extremely positive about this project because it gives them an alternative to an enduring pest problem: they save on snail bait and score points for their EurepGAP status if they don’t use pesticides,’ he says.
After harvest, the snails are collected into containers and stored in a chiller where they are ’purged’ of pesticide residue for up to two weeks. After lab analysis to verify them toxin-free, the snails are sorted by age, with only mature molluscs, from four months to a year old, qualifying for the trip to Europe. Artificial hibernation is then induced until they are exported.
’We can’t hibernate them too long as they lose weight, but we generally keep them asleep for a month while the paperwork is readied,’ says Oktober.
The live snails are then air-freighted or shipped to Europe in netlon bags and crates.
Elezane Industries has proud quality and employment-creation credentials: it is the only South African company EU certified to export snails and is also HACCP certified and, despite being in operation for less than two years, already employs 16 factory workers and provides many more seasonal jobs for the harvest crews.
While export will always be the key focus, Elezane Industries is also selling frozen snail meat to restaurants in Cape Town, and is trialing a retail product ie ready-to-heat-and-eat snails as a value-added, premium offering for both local and overseas markets.
Snails are not exactly a major South African delicacy, and Oktober accepts that much consumer edification and mindset changes will be required: ’It’s all a question of education because, although our snails look like the ones in your garden, they are delicious to eat and are more tender than the rubbery, inferior-quality snail meat locals are used to,’ he says, testament yet again to the traditional scenario where our best-quality product goes to export leaving local consumers to eat inferior/expensive imports or home-grown dregs.
Some statistics support Oktober’s NPD confidence – according to research house, BMI Foodpack, 45 018kg of snails were imported in 2005 – suggesting that although niche, the market is there.
’The time is right, people are willing to be more adventurous in their eating and our product will hold its own. Although our focus has been at top-end chefs and restaurants, there’s no reason we couldn’t interest caterers, the housewife and even sports fans who could eat snail snacks alongside their biltong,’ he suggests.
He’s also working on the idea of linking snails to tourism. Much like the wine route, his plan is to offer a ’snail trail’ where visitors would harvest with the pickers, travel to the factory and then enjoy a snail dish at the end of the day in nearby Hawston, a poor community whose seafood restaurant would benefit from tourists’ patronage.
’It’s only through perseverance that the snail reached Noah’s ark, so we have to be patient and go slowly,’ he concludes.
It was only through perseverance that snails reached the ark, the saying goes, and Elezane Industries MD Robert Oktober can vouch for its wisdom since he and his business partner decided to start exporting the slimy gastropod.
The Hermanus-based company, the only one in South Africa that is accredited to harvest, process and export terrestrial snails, was founded in 1998 by Iva Puel-Freitag, a French employee of a Belgian snail processor.
After trying without success to identify an appropriate domestic snail species in the Eastern Cape, Puel-Freitag made contact with University of Stellenbosch snail specialist Prof Willem Sirgel, who alerted her to the fact that Western Cape fruit farmers were battling to control an invasive alien snail species.
By happy coincidence, the culprit, which is believed to have been brought into SA decades ago, either intentionally to be eaten or as a stowaway on imported fresh produce, was found to be a species called Helix Apersa Muller. Known in French as Petit Gris (small grey), this snail is highly prized by gastronomes worldwide for its unique texture.
The fruit farmers, who had been paying up to R250/ha for snail control in the form of poisoned bait, were only too happy to be rid of the vermin.
Oktober says Puel-Freitag, by virtue of her relationship to the Belgian snail processing company, had an intimate knowledge of the market requirements and distribution channels needed to successfully export to the EU. Nonetheless, SA only became accredited to export snails to the European Union (EU) in 2001, with the help of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and SA’s embassy in Brussels.
According to Oktober, their market research indicated that about 40 000 tons of snails of various species are consumed in the EU each year, with France leading the way and Belgium also prominent. However, over-harvesting had resulted in a shortage, opening the way for Elezane to enter the fray.
Oktober says one of the key competitive advantages for the business is that SA’s seasons complement those of Europe, which means harvesting takes place at a different time of year and exports can be timed for periods when European supply is at its lowest and prices are buoyant.
Like all foodstuffs imported into the EU, snails are subjected to stringent quality and disease controls.
“There are critical points of cross contamination in any food export process which could compromise food safety regulations, and operational systems have been put in place to reduce the risk,” Oktober says.
But he compares the processing of paperwork associated with exporting snails to the creature’s own pace – about 7cm an hour.
Most local farmers are more than happy to allow Elezane to pay their labourers to do the harvesting. Apart from getting rid of the snails, they benefit by saving the cost of bait and avoiding the risks associated with using chemicals close to an edible product, while the labourers are able to earn extra cash.
Elezane also employs contractors to harvest snails in some instances.
Either way, Elezane gets its snails at a price that makes everybody happy.
Airfreight shipments use standard containers and are in transit for two days, while seafreight shipments are packed in 6m–12m containers and voyages take up to three weeks.
Elezane still sells a variety of snail products locally, including frozen snail meat, bottled snails in sauce and live snails in shells.
Oktober says that South Africans have some way to go before they become as discerning as French consumers, who favour certain subspecies over others.
South African restaurants often create the impression that they are serving French snails by using the meat of the Achatina snail, which is exported in volume from Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and inserting it in reusable shells. The “small greys” that Elezane harvests have a brown shell with stripes.
Oktober believes the European market for snails is so large that there is scope for Elezane to increase its volumes substantially.
The company exported about 10 tons in its first year of operation and has since increased this to 30 tons a year. He says there are several other edible species of snail in SA other than the ‘small grey’, and Elezane will also be exploring their harvesting and export potential.
Source: Business Day – The SA Exporter, 3 July 2006, p.14.
Elezane Industries (028) 312-4908