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Nation Building Top Tips – Supporting Farmers

Written by: Lilford Lesabe

Nation Building Top Tips – Supporting Farmers

Although South Africa is mainly, and increasingly, an urbanised country, we sometimes have romantic notions about the place of farming in the upliftment of poorer communities and as a gateway to independence for disadvantaged individuals. We should be careful to understand what is and what isn’t real in this part of development, and be clear-eyed about what it is that we seek to achieve when working in this sphere.

To start, let’s get a picture of where farming in its broadest sense stands in our country - where about a third of all people are still rurally-based.

Who produces our food?

According to the 2012 SA Survey, there are 1,3 million farmers in South Africa, of whom only 4% don’t subsist but are commercial. These few, says the government, produce 95% of our food.

The SA Institute of Race Relations works out that it is the larger, private company farms that produce best, pay the most, and employ more than individual commercial farmers. But legislative encroachment on farming property rights and the efficiencies of modernisation have seen jobs on commercial farms fall 41% since 2004, and farming now contributes 2,5% to GDP, a steady decline from the 10,3% of 1967.

We remain, just, a net exporter of food. It’s an increasingly precarious situation in a country where the government owns a quarter of all land, and where black ownership of land has been severely restricted for a century.

What about the 96%?

As mentioned, all but 4% or people growing foodstuffs are subsistence in their farming. They are almost entirely growing food for themselves or as a small addition to income.

Thus, according to the Statistics SA 2012 General Household Survey, involves 2,6 million households (out of SA’s total of 14,6 million households). Of the households involved in food production, 77% do so as an extra source of food, 9% as the main source of food, 7% for leisure or as a hobby, 6% as an additional income, and only 2% as the main income source (figures rounded).

This takes place in a context in which, says the Health Systems Trust, severe malnutrition among under-fives has been consistently falling since the turn of the century (from 13% in 2000 to 4,3% in 2011).

What then for CSI?

In corporate social investment, support for agricultural activities tends to cover different things such as programmes of training, material supply, and coordination of subsistence farmer work in ways that raise these endeavours from low-level farming to commercial independence, along with food garden projects carried out under the “agricultural livelihoods” rubric. These two main thrusts are, of course, very different things.

Food gardens

Long a favourite of CSI activity, food gardens are typically established at schools or state/community institutions such as clinics to provide nutritional supplements to poor communities over and above those provided through state, NGO and CSI feeding programmes.

Food gardening projects are by nature cyclical and are ongoing efforts. The donor is usually well advised to steer clear of practical management of these, relying instead on partnering with NGOs that specialise in this type of work.

Formalising agriculture

Here, CSI typically takes place when donors support NGOs that work with often subsistence-level small-scale farmers to bring to these training, supplies and often broader networks. The latter are important for the coordination of local farming efforts and to integrate these, often over many years, into commercially viable product identification (“what the market wants and can be provided with”), reliable distribution, marketing and retail partnerships.

This work is super complex, time-consuming, personality-based and often requires specialist involvement over a long-term project horizon. It often involves complex stakeholder engagements that may include subsistence farmers, traditional leadership, state institutions, commercial entities, funders and NGO facilitators/trainers/project managers.

This sort of work is obviously not for the fly-by-night CSI funder, nor the faint-hearted, but it does hold the potential, and sometimes the reward, of truly economically transformative change in the fortunes of farmers and communities being worked with. When, over a number of years, these projects bring positive results, it can be of an extraordinary sort.

Learning from across Africa – technology in small-scale farming

In some things, there is much that we can learn from agricultural progress on other parts of the continent. Use of cellular telephone technology to assist small-scale farmers to break through to the next economic levels is one. This is especially so given how much access to cellular telephony we now have in SA.

So, despite a massive rollout of landline services by Telkom during the Nineties and in the last decade, landline usage in South Africa has actually fallen thanks to the rise of handier mobile services. Stats SA reports that 94% of households either had no access to landline phones, or had their service discontinued, by 2011, a fall of 31% since 2007.

Yet people in 89% of households had cell phones, up from 71% over the same period. South Africa now has more mobile phones than people (a higher proportion than the US). Off cell phones comes greater access to the internet, to which 43% of South Africans had regular access by 2011. We can expect all manner of mobile applications to come from this.

Trends analyst Clem Sunter points to the fast-spreading use in parts of KZN of a cell phone application that links wholesalers, product distributors and small rural retailers in a stock replenishment and control system. He also points to a perhaps surprising leader in African cell phone technology use, Kenya, home to the continent’s largest cell phone banking application, M-Pesa.

This sort of “e-wallet” gets rid of the need for banks to run expensive branch networks in poor areas by letting cell phones be the site of most banking transactions. Even salary payments reflect on phones and shopping purchases are made using them.

This system has also been introduced in Nigeria, a country with 110 million active cell phones but fewer than 25 million bank accounts, and is starting in South Africa, reports Good Governance Africa (GGA), a Johannesburg-based think tank.

GGA also points to Kenya leading the way in farming cellular technology use. One app used there, M-farm, updates current produce and livestock market prices by SMS to 6 400 rural farmers who negotiate their sales and timings with distribution brokers. Another service, iCow, lets rural farmers track the gestation periods of their cattle, again using SMS. Other services track weather patterns and insure crops.

Off of such progress can many new CSI interventions of great positive effect come, and these are things that funders in the agricultural livelihoods sector might do well to keep track of, and support.

Written by Paul Pereira, editor-in-chief at WHAM! Media, and part of the Nation Builder collaborative initiative.




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