Peppers and Tomatoes Drive Up South African Barbecue Index

May 4, 2023


(Bloomberg) -- With surging fruit and vegetable costs in South Africa making it increasingly difficult for Lynn Pillay to buy healthy food for her family, she’s turned to smaller, independent stores in poor neighborhoods to try and find cheaper produce.

“It’s tough being a South African these days,” said the 43-year-old mother of two, who lives in Bedfordview in eastern Johannesburg but regularly travels to the suburb of Lenasia about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away to do her grocery shopping.

While food prices have gone up across the board, they’ve risen disproportionately for fresh produce. The cost of green peppers jumped 16% over the past month, the biggest rise of any single ingredient across Bloomberg’s Shisa Nyama Index, followed by onions and spinach at 11% and tomatoes at 8%.

Crunching data from the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity group, the index tracks the prices of some of the key ingredients in a traditional barbecue consumed in South Africa’s townships — known as a shisa nyama. Corn meal, onions, carrots, tomatoes, curry powder, salt, beef and wors — a type of sausage — are among the other items that make up the index.

The gauge shows prices rose 20.3% on average in April from a year earlier. That surpassed the 7.1% year-on-year official headline inflation rate in March and a 14.4% increase in food costs. South Africa’s central bank expects food inflation to average 9.9% this year.


Higher fuel prices and rolling blackouts imposed by the state power utility are among the factors that have contributed to rising input costs across the food chain, research conducted by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy shows.

The power cuts, known locally as loadshedding, have also reduced the shelf life of tomatoes and other food that requires refrigeration. That’s prompted consumers like Pillay to shop more frequently to reduce wastage. 

Over the past two years, production expenses have “increased dramatically, putting margins under pressure and resulting in producers planting fewer hectares,” said Marlene Louw, a senior agricultural economist at Absa AgriBusiness. “This is especially apparent in onions, where persistently lower volumes have resulted in prices almost doubling compared to the corresponding time last year.” 

To compile its household affordability survey, PMBEJD data collectors track food prices on the shelves of 44 supermarkets and 30 butcheries that target the low-income market in and around Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, the northwestern town of Springbok and the far northeastern town of Mtubatuba.


The group’s data shows that across the six centers it tracks, two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of green peppers is most expensive in Mtubatuba at 99.97 rand ($5.46), with Cape Town the next most costly at 69.18 rand. A six-kilogram bag of tomatoes cost most in Springbok at 167.94 rand last month, followed by Mtubatuba where the fruit costs 157.94 rand.

The price spike has also impacted on food vendors like White Edison, who has sold vegetables in Johannesburg’s central business district for the past 17 years to support his wife and two sons who live in Malawi. While he now pays as much as 300 rand for an 18-kilogram box of tomatoes, he’s been unable to raise his prices because his customers are already cash-strapped and has instead reduced the size of his retail packs. 

Prices have gone up in the past, “but not like this year, never,” said Edison, 38, whose financial predicament has been made even worse because he is paying more for his own food and taxi fares.  

--With assistance from Renee Bonorchis and Gina Turner.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.