Rescuing emerging farmers in South Africa?
by Davison Chikazunga
Emerging farmers are often excluded from the mainstream agricultural economy. This situation can be reversed however, if we improve our understanding of who these emerging farmers are and what problems they are facing. Emerging farmers are inherently small – small land sizes and diverse production modes – making survival difficult in the modern agriculture economy. The New Growth Path policy blue print points to agriculture as being a key sector for creating jobs and growing the economy, yet despite evidence of crafting by excellent wordsmith, the document policy says very little on practical issues impeding emerging farmers from participating in markets.
The South African agriculture economy has little or no room for emerging farmers; with no strong support system, being an emerging farmer in South Africa can be a hopeless adventure. Introducing market liberalisation in 1992 has aggravated the difficulties; it was naïve for the country to introduce such measures at the dawn of democracy when the state presence needed to do much to establish new black farmers. South Africa’s agriculture economy under apartheid blossomed because of state subsidies, and similar support programs in America and Europe helped their agricultural economies to thrive.
While much has been done since 1994 to empower emerging farmers, much more is needed – especially on aspects like finance, skills, organisation and markets. Agriculture finance is a highly complicated courting experience: commercial banks are a no-go-area for emerging farmers as they demand several requirements that are difficult for the average rural folk to grasp; government financial support is also dismal, as the Landbank is more likely to support an established farmer than an emerging farmer. Other support structures such as MAFISA and CASP funds have no footprint, so it is difficult to asses their effectiveness in helping emerging farmers. Therefore the Landbank must be re-mandated to occupy its original position as the one stop shop for all financial matters in support of emerging farmers.
Skills development is a major set-back with respect to empowering emerging farmers due to poor quality public extension services. Current farmer training programs miss the mark; by trying and failing to give training in the classroom, rather than in the field. While the mentorship programs have good intentions and has the capacity to develop agriculture skills, it is mostly limited to teaching production skills, whereas emerging farmers mostly need management skills such as on finance, management and marketing. Emerging farmers in South Africa also rely on a weak public extension sector, whereas commercial farmers secure access to quality private extension services provided by agribusinesses. A balanced mix of extension and mentorship must be struck to capacitate emerging farmers to operate viable agriculture businesses.
Emerging farmers also need to organise and need support to do so; currently this group is highly disorganised and misrepresented. They can learn a lesson or two from commercial farmers, since commercial farmers’ successs can be partly explained by how highly organised and well represented they are. There is a general misconception that cooperatives provide the best way for organising emerging farmers, hence agricultural cooperatives have mushroomed throughout the country, even while such cooperatives have not fared very well, and many have collapsed for a variety of reasons, including in-fighting, free-riding, power dynamics, etcs. Other forms of organisation such as farmer unions and commodity associations have not been useful either. The case of NAFU and its splinter groups paints a grim picture on how emerging farmers in this country are mis-represented. Significant investment is needed to establish strong institutions who can fight for the cause of emerging farmers; organisations that specialise in organisation development can play a crucial role in this regard.
Last but not least, market acceess, is a huge hurdle facing emerging farmers who are excluded from markets because:
- production is low and inconsistent;
- they have limited access to market infrastructure (e.g packhouses, abattoirs, silos, etc) which are important to emerging farmers to final markets, but such facilities and infrastructure are often dismissed as a non-issue as the perception is that emerging farmers should use the same structures as commercial farmers even though these are monopolised by big business;
- most agriculture markets are impermeable to small producers, for example processors and retail chains have stringent procurement policies such as international quality standards (GlobalGAP), labelling, exclusive contractual arrangements, etc.
While government has introduced an AgriBEE policy to unlock the agriculture value chain for emerging farmers, the policy barks at the wrong tree as it provides no robust preferential procurement code which must be the pillar for integrating emerging farmers in agricultural markets. The policy could be useful it set quotas on how much should agribusiness should procure from emerging farmers. Re-introducing state market agents to target emerging farmers can provide a good starting point to address barriers to market entry.
Developing emerging farmers in South Africa is not straightforward, however doing nothing is not an option. Empowering emerging farmers in this country is very possible with the right recipe of relevant public policies and a pro-poor proactive private sector. However, even though they are entitled to a place in the agricultural economy, emerging farmers also cannot just sit back and wait for the right mix of policies and alignment of government and business practices. Emerging farmers should also rise to the occasion and write their own history knowing very well that in the agricultural industry you either swim or sink.