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Transforming SA’s agriculture sector can create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition and ignite the economy

IN South Africa, primary agriculture contributes to gross domestic product and to formal employment. 

There are strong linkages into the economy – agricultural activities range from intensive crop production and mixed farming to cattle in the bushveld and sheep farming in the more arid regions. 

In South Africa, the opportunity exists through the transformation of the agriculture industry, to present solutions that provide the poor with the choice of livelihoods and dignity and a solution that can be replicated across the African Continent.

 A solution that combines knowledge, experience & expertise must be tailored into a system and approach with communities, government and the private sector to develop sustainable transformation. 

This approach should be based on the concept of “Building from Below” through active engagement from inception that allows for the relevant stakeholders and beneficiaries to be part of the design, structuring and implementation resulting in them taking ownership, and showing commitment and dedication.

 Transforming our country’s agriculture sector can create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition, and ignite the economy on a path to middle-income growth. 

Historically, industrialized nations began their economic recovery or growth with an agricultural transformation. Recent examples include Brazil, China, and Vietnam, each of which at least doubled the value of its agriculture sector within 20 years of starting its transformation. 

South Africa however, is still early on the path of transformation. It has not advanced as planned. The drivers of agricultural transformation are complex and change over time.

However, the questions are: 

• Are we “transformation ready”? 

• Have we made appropriate changes to our country’s institutional framework, and governing mechanisms?

•  Does the political environment significantly influence the likelihood of accelerating an agricultural transformation?

• Do we have a quality national agricultural plan or strategy and can we translate the national agricultural plan into on-the-ground impact?

We need to identify market-driven opportunities that are high-value crops that provide better returns for farmers. The focus should be profitability for the farmer, including paying attention to sustainability, quality, storage, and processing. 

We need change agents to support the large-scale behaviour change among smallholder farmers that underpins a successful agricultural transformation through access to information, knowledge and skills transfer. 

These changes agents need to come from both the public and private sector. We must achieve transformation through scaling interventions that are not “single solution” programmes. 

Instead, we need to identify different points in the industry where small changes can lead to larger shifts toward transformation. We must also adopt a pragmatic approach to transformation with an Investor mindset.

AGDA supports inclusive growth in the sector – interventions at different points within the value chain will help to support the creation of new jobs. Working together, the government and private sector should focus on growing the export market – backwards-engineering this to produce a new cohort of farmers who can be supported through partnerships with established role players. 

This will also support investment into the much-needed logistics space. Legislation alone cannot achieve transformation, there needs to be a mindset shift – understanding that if we want to grow the economy, we have to consider the issue of inclusivity so that we begin to bridge inequality and build together. 

Yes, we have to acknowledge that a number of programmes implemented in the past have not achieved the desired result including the land reform and agricultural programmes – this could be attributed to capacity, challenges in implementing an integrated approach between government and private sector, and risks associated with agri-business opportunities. 

At the same time, there are definitely good programmes that are laying the foundation for inclusive growth such as:

 • Grain SA Development Programme – focussed on developing sustainable production with small growers

 • Citrus Growers programme – that is supporting the growth of new farmers in the industry

 • Schoeman Boerdery – Zamukele Programme – developing sustainable farmers in bean production

 • Deciduous Fruit industry has also been doing very well in developing and supporting new farmers

. • AGDA – is also an example of private sector collaboration that is bringing together various role players in the industry and government – developing new models for partnerships and looking at innovative ways to solve the gaps that exist in the support for new entrants into the sector – focus on skills, markets and finance.

In conclusion, for the transformation of our country’s agricultural sector to succeed, there must be a common understanding of the plan, stakeholder roles, and approach to management of the process. 

At the highest level, key government departments, the private sector and donors must all be aligned. If we can get this right then transforming our country’s agriculture sector will create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition, and ignite the economy on a path to middle-income growth. 

  • This is an edited version of a speech by Dr Mathews Phosa, a business expert and leader as well as a veteran politician at the Fresh Produce Exporters Forum’s annual transformation webinar.