And that’s a wrap! Africa Agri Tech Day 3 reminds us that our quest for food security requires a holistic, long-term approach that needs to start today.
With the first day of Africa Agri Tech largely highlighting the potential of technology to transform farming, and Day 2 unpacking that technology and the data it provides in more detail, the third and final day saw panel discussions where speakers grappled with the reality of agriculture and land reform as it stands in South Africa today.
Our ability as a country to not only become food secure but also a formidable international agri player is constrained by the realities of our economy.
The pressing need to address unemployment is one of the most urgent issues government is facing, which often redirects attention and funds away from the agriculture sector even though it could be one of our country’s largest employers.
There is no question that land ownership in South Africa needs to reflect the demographics in the country, but the ambiguity and uncertainty around land reform not only affects current farmers but the economy as a whole with individuals and businesses holding out on investment until there is greater clarity. Of course, the debate continues on what the best way forward around land reform may be, but in the meantime, we wait.
The failure of basic government services like electricity, and in some areas, water, adds to South African farmers’ woes. In many rural areas, roads are unnavigable, adding additional costs to farmers of all sizes – but as always, those that are most affected are the smaller farmers in areas like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
The reality is that economies of scale in the food and agricultural sector will reduce year-on-year without basic support from government.
It is against this backdrop that the agricultural sector must find innovative ways to thrive. Besides agriculture’s ideal positioning to be a sector that contributes to GDP growth and has the potential for large-scale job creation, it is critical that we focus on developing our capacity to produce food. The danger is that by 2050, South Africa simply will not be producing enough food to feed its population.
As Chris Venter highlighted, we really need to be thinking about food security in the long term and take a 20 to 30-year view. The danger is that politicians often sacrifice long-term capacity building for quick political wins. This simply cannot be the case with agriculture.
The need to formulate a holistic rural development strategy is clear, with Wandile Sihlobo highlighting Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape as three areas that are prime to thrive with some focus, investment and importantly, political will. The aim is to get smallholder farmers into the value chain, and eventually into export markets.
However, in order for this to happen, smallholder farmers require access to finance. This again highlights the fact that the securitisation of land tenure is key to this sustainability conversation. Without security, farmers cannot access finance. Without this, they cannot participate in the value chain.
In the face of these realities, the private sector is being called on to pick up the developmental mantle. One way, John Purchase notes, is for agricultural subsectors to develop aggregation or co-op models. These have proven to be an effective channel to train small farmers, get access to finance, develop skills, and gain access to markets.
Grobank CEO, Bennie van Rooy, highlights the importance of finance providers taking a broader view of farmers’ risk profiles by taking the full value chain into account, rather than just their assets that can be used as collateral.
“If we wait for absolute policy certainty in land and land tenure, we’ll wait forever”, says van Rooy. “So, we have to find creative ways around this. You have to have line of sight of the a farmer’s full value chain beyond land, such as access to water, skills, financial support, access to markets, committed contracts and distribution. We need to become more proactive in understanding individual farms on an ongoing basis. This is where technology plays such an important role.”
A key learning from the past three days at Africa Agri Tech is that collaboration is key to ensuring that the agricultural sector plays the food security and economic growth role we require of it in South Africa. Farmers need to upskill and empower themselves with the latest technologies to drive efficiencies and economies of scale, and also to lessen their environmental impact. Government needs to be more effective in providing the basic needs required to minimise uncertainty in the sector. And the private sector needs to be creative and often developmental in its approach to farmers. The fact is, we need them to thrive. South Africa’s future depends on them.
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