Organized-criminal syndicates are muscling in for a share of the profits of southern Africa’s avocado and macadamia nut markets.

Markets for agricultural produce may not be commonly associated with organized crime, corruption and violence. But for people in South Africa’s farming sector, it may come as no surprise that black markets for macadamia nuts and avocados are booming. Both are premium crops. Macadamias are the most expensive nuts in the world, and price records continue to be broken year on year, reportedly reaching up to US$25 per pound on international markets.1 Avocados are commonly dubbed ‘green gold’, with worldwide demand pushing prices sky high. In South Africa, avocado prices have reached 25 rands per fruit in February this year as pre-season demand outstrips supply.2

The popularity of both crops has become something of a double-edged sword for the farming industry in Southern Africa. Macadamia thefts have surged across the region in the past five years, as have avocado thefts, particularly in South Africa.3 Farming associations say it is increasingly becoming an organized crime, with syndicates dealing in stolen produce infiltrating the legitimate market.4

February and March are a particularly vulnerable period for both avocado and macadamia theft in South Africa. Avocado thefts reportedly spike in the months preceding the harvesting season, as the unripe fruit appears ready to eat and prices are high due to pre-season scarcity. Macadamia thefts likewise rise as the harvesting season begins in March.

Avocado theft: A South African manifestation of a global phenomenon

South Africa is a leading player in the global avocado industry, with an estimated 17 000 hectares under cultivation.5 While Zimbabwe and, to a smaller degree, Mozambique also have nascent avocado industries, South Africa is by far the largest producer in Southern Africa.6

According to Bram Snijder of the South African Avocado Growers’ Association, avocado thefts have affected large-scale and smallholder farmers alike, and growers have shouldered the burden of extensive security operations in their efforts to ward off potential thieves. ‘It’s shocking to see how much money we spend on security,’ he said. ‘It’s not only fences and alarm systems and things like that, but it’s also about guarding orchards and properties day and night during the season. … There’s a massive cost involved in ensuring the fruit doesn’t get stolen.’

Thefts range from single opportunists carrying out small-scale raids to large-scale thefts by organized syndicates – groups who have established links to buyers they know will take on the stolen fruit. These groups are not limited to particular areas, but reportedly travel widely across avocado-growing regions to target farms,7 and will often strategically hit several farms in an area simultaneously in order to divide security operations in the area.

Large-scale thefts may move between 20 and 30 tonnes of avocados in a single night, which are then distributed through different channels around the region. According to Snijder, farmers joke darkly about the night-time raids, remarking that ‘the night shift can pick faster than the day shift’.

In a 2018 survey carried out by the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association (Subtrop), the organization which manages the affairs of South Africa’s avocado, lychee and mango growers’ associations, 83% of growers surveyed said that avocado theft was a problem on their farms.8 Figure 1 indicates the scale of avocado theft in recent years (estimates for the 2018 and 2019 seasons were not available at time of writing).

Reported avocado thefts in South Africa, 2015–2017

Figure 1 Reported avocado thefts in South Africa, 2015–2017

South African Subtropical Growers’ Association, data provided by email, 7 February 2020

Most stolen fruit finds its way onto the informal market, as roadside hawkers of fruit operate outside formal regulation. Yet a proportion of the spoils also infiltrate South Africa’s formal, municipal fruit markets, as unscrupulous buyers may purchase the stolen goods outside the market area and thus outside the legal authority of market inspectors. While groups such as the South African Avocado Growers’ Association attempt to monitor thefts and keep track of stolen fruit being brought to market, gaps in the formal inspection regime have proven hard to close.

According to Snijder, regulations in the international market – including traceability systems and certification of produce – are strict enough to keep stolen produce out of the international supply chain. However, demand for avocados within South Africa is high enough for the stolen fruit to be consumed within the country.

Despite the difficulties in policing informal and municipal markets, and the costs of increased security on farms, the avocado market has, it seems, turned a corner. ‘I think these illegal traders have become very wary that [there are] more inspections going on everywhere,’ Snijder said, ‘and they’ve also burned their fingers with immature fruit and then people are not going back to their stands to buy fruit again. We’ve actually seen in the last two years there is definitely a decrease in theft cases.’

The experience of South African growers is far from unique. Amid the surging popularity of the avocado, thefts have been reported as a problem in places as widespread as New Zealand, Spain, California and Mexico, where in the ‘avocado belt’ of Michoacan, cartels more commonly associated with drug trafficking have muscled in on the business, extorting farmers and hijacking up to 48 tonnes of fruit per day.9 Competition between criminal groups for regional control of the trade has led to violence, including several killings,10 to the extent that some analysts have argued that avocados could be seen as a ‘conflict commodity’, akin to mineral resources in other conflicts, due to the links with extortion, violence, forced labour and environmental degradation.11

Although the South African black market is clearly not experiencing violence comparable to that occurring in Mexico, it is clear that avocado markets around the world are similarly vulnerable to criminal exploitation.

Macadamia theft: A changing phenomenon across Southern Africa

Reports from macadamia growers in South Africa suggest that, like avocados, the nuts are the targets of organized syndicates, which are involved from the farm gate to the processing and redistribution stage of the market.12 Major suppliers that are supposedly operating legitimately are also suspected of knowingly purchasing and redistributing stolen crops.13

According to information gathered in 2017 by Maca­d­amias South Africa, a growers’ organization, based on reporting from several private investigators, thefts are carried out both from the groves themselves and from processing facilities, and may involve the farm workers themselves, organized teams of independent harvesters, or macadamia hawkers either buying directly or colluding with groups of thieves to receive stolen nuts. Armed robberies are also reportedly on the increase.14

Reporting from Macadamias South Africa suggests that, unlike avocados, stolen macadamias are being transported internationally, many via Zimbabwe. Other reports have also suggested the stolen produce is shipped via Zimbabwe,15 and one investigation by a local South African newspaper, The Lowvelder, found that businesses operating in Mbombela, the capital of Mpumalanga province, were exporting stolen nuts via Maputo in Mozambique to the United States.16

Macadamia theft is also pervasive in neighbouring countries. In southern Malawi and Mozambique, macadamia thefts have reportedly contributed to tensions between smallholder and commercial growers, as commercial growers view the informal market as the conduit for stolen produce and are therefore unwilling to bring smallholders into the formal market.17

Reporting from Zimbabwe has described several instances where brazen daylight thefts of macadamias by groups armed with machetes have led to clashes between growers and thieves, particularly in the macadamia groves surrounding the town of Chipinge.18 Several macadamia thieves have been killed and several injured.19 In one incident, a suspected nut thief was shot dead at the farm of a Zimbabwean army official who is also head of the Chipinge macadamia growers’ association. The official’s nephew is due to be tried for the murder.20 A new law created in response to the violence, which mandated licensing of macadamia buyers and growers, was welcomed by industry actors.21

Implications: More than just lost produce

According to Lizel Pretorius, CEO of Macadamias South Africa, one of the challenges of dealing with macadamia thefts is that – unlike avocados, which rapidly deteriorate in quality once picked – the nuts can be stockpiled for 12 to 18 months before being reintroduced into the market. Where they are presented as legitimate produce, differentiating between legally and illegally acquired nuts becomes impossible.

The impact on macadamia growers is not merely the loss of stolen produce, but the fact that the sale of stolen nuts (at a fraction of the normal market value) suppresses prices on the international market. Stolen macadamias are also not processed in accordance with industry hygiene standards. The reputational damage caused by produce that is a health risk being sold from South Africa (which prides itself on producing some of the best macadamias in the world) can affect the entire industry.

Avocado growers have also expressed concern that stolen fruit will have an impact on consumer demand, as the fruit is generally stolen while it is immature, meaning it will never fully ripen and therefore gives consumers (who may have bought the fruit unwittingly) a mistaken impression of the quality of South Africa’s produce.

These concerns mirror developments in the international market for abalone, as reportedly the influx of poached South African abalone into Hong Kong’s food markets has contributed to Japanese abalone being seen as a superior delicacy to legal South African produce. The poached specimens, like the stolen macadamias, are not processed according to food safety standards, and this has impacted the industry at large.

The implications of avocado and macadamia theft go beyond the cost of stolen produce. As growers face unsustainable security costs and the potential for damaged consumer trust in the industry, the thefts place the development of sustainable, viable markets for these crops at risk.


  1. Andries van Zyl, Crop theft has major impact on macadamia industry, Limpopo Mirror, 4 November 2017,; Irene Kim, What makes macadamia nuts the most expensive nuts in the world, at $25 per pound, Business Insider, 6 March 2019,

  2. Stefan de Villiers, Dogs deployed to help fight avo theft in the Lowveld, The Lowvelder, 8 February 2019,; Helena Wasserman, There’s a shortage of avocados in South Africa – and you can expect to pay R25 for one, if you can find it, Business Insider South Africa, 6 February 2020,

  3. Interview with Lizel Pretorius, CEO of Macadamias South Africa NPC, by phone, February 2020. 

  4. Lindi Botha, Macadamia and avocado theft costs industry millions, Farmer’s Weekly, 8 January 2020,; Barry Christie, South African macadamia industry satisfied with stiff sentence for theft, Fresh Plaza, 8 November 2017,

  5. South African Subtropical Growers’ Association (Subtrop), Impact of avocado theft on the industry and the South African economy, 2018, provided by email, 7 February 2020. 

  6. Avocado production: Avocados in South Africa, South Africa Online,

  7. Lindi Botha, Macadamia and avocado theft costs industry millions, Farmer’s Weekly, 8 January 2020,

  8. South African Subtropical Growers’ Association (Subtrop), Impact of avocado theft on the industry and the South African economy, 2018, provided by email, 7 February 2020. A total of 93 growers were surveyed. 

  9. Eleanor Ainge Roy, Electric fences and armed patrols: On the frontline of New Zealand’s avocado war, The Guardian, 30 October 2018,; Avocados are highly coveted by thieves in Spain, Fresh Plaza, 10 December 2019,; Samuel Trilling, Mexican farmers: 48 tons of avocados lost to gangs every day, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 18 June 2019,

  10. Annie Todd, Cartel war seeks to control avocado trade in Mexico, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 13 August 2019,

  11. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Are Mexican avocados the world’s new conflict commodity?, The Guardian, 30 December 2019,

  12. Barry Christie, South African macadamia industry satisfied with stiff sentence for theft, Fresh Plaza, 8 November 2017,

  13. Andries van Zyl, Crop theft has major impact on macadamia industry, Limpopo Mirror, 4 November 2017,

  14. Southern African Macadamia Growers’ Association, Impact of macadamia theft on the industry and the South African economy, provided by email, 12 October 2017. 

  15. Andries van Zyl, Crop theft has major impact on macadamia industry, Limpopo Mirror, 4 November 2017,

  16. Tereasa Dias, Macadamia nut farmers losing millions due to theft, The Lowvelder, 24 August 2018,

  17. Amsita Parshotam, Cultivating smallholder inclusion in Southern Africa’s macadamia nut value chains, Africa Portal occasional paper. 

  18. The great nut robbery: These machete-wielding gangs don’t want cash, News24, 13 April 2017,; Luthando Mapepa Chipinge, Macadamia thieves besiege Chipinge, Manica Post, 11 January 2019,

  19. Macadamia robbers must be tamed, Zimbabwe Daily, 16 January 2020,

  20. Richard Muponde, Suspected macadamia nuts ‘thief’ shot at top army boss farm, NewsDay, 16 February 2019,

  21. Samuel Kadungure, Major breakthrough for macadamia growers, Manica Post, 19 July 2019,