Africa’s agriculture conundrum

John Vorster of Mezzanine speaks during the panel discussion on agriculture and food security in Africa. (Johann Barnard)

John Vorster of Mezzanine speaks during the panel discussion on agriculture and food security in Africa. (Johann Barnard)

The abundant, arable and undeveloped tracts of land on the continent held the promise that all manner of agricultural produce would land on dinner plates around the globe. Rapid urbanisation, a focus on raw materials and falling yields have largely derailed this promise, although the sector still employs 65% of Africa’s labour force and accounts for 32% of its gross domestic product.

The economic potential for ­agriculture was therefore a well-debated subject at last week’s Africa Business Conference. The debate was moderated by Bhekinkosi Moyo of the Southern African Trust, who introduced a panel representing three different aspects of the agricultural landscape: developmental, technological and commercial.

The case for commercial agriculture was presented by the chief executive of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, Ismael Sunga, who painted a sobering picture of the challenges and realities of the sector.

He started by cautioning against the misconception that agriculture was a silver bullet to the question of economic activity or rural development through partnerships between big agribusiness and smallholder farmers. “Inclusiveness does not mean ‘everyone’,” he said.

“I think it should be read as ‘everyone that matters, everyone that is appropriate’. In the same breath, one should understand that not everyone who stays in a rural area is a farmer.” He clarified this by pointing out that a blanket approach to agricultural development by trying to build smallholder farmers into commercial operators was a mistaken approach.

“Quite often in development, with the best intentions, you find commercial approaches being deployed to non commercial situations,” he said of the extension of credit to farmers who had no intention of entering the business of producing crops for profit.

This misconception tended to do more damage than good because of divergent goals that were not always evident.

Differing aspirations

This question of managing expectations between developmental goals and the needs of small-scale farmers was supported by figures presented by Diane Pieters, director of Siyavuna, an NGO that promotes small-scale farming in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

She highlighted that, although the vast majority of programme participants considered the training they received to be useful and enjoyed improved food security, less than a quarter were actively selling their produce.

This was explained to a certain extent by the aspirations of the farmers Siyavuna engaged with: only 14% of the registered growers sell their produce every week, 11% at least once a month, 42% sell less than once a month and 33% don’t sell at all.

“For me this is about different aspirations,” Pieters said. “The 42% see the collection point as their ATM who, when they want cash, collect produce from their garden to sell it. The 33% was surprising at first, but for me they are the group that wants to belong.

“They see the programme as a success and value the advice and assistance they get from the farming association, and perhaps aspire to sell one day.” The major constraints Siyavuna has identified as holding back these small-scale farmers include the lack of infrastructure, appropriate ­technology, climate change and getting young people involved in agriculture.

Responding to an audience question on making the sector more attractive to younger farmers, Sunga suggested that a fundamental structural change was needed. “The way we look at agriculture now and the engine that we want to drive us to the destination is no match for what is required. “We need not an overhaul, we need a new engine that is suitable for the job,” he said.

“And part of the engine is going to be the young farmers. But how do you entice young farmers to go into a sector that is a sector of last resort, a sector of punishment where when everything else goes wrong in life you go into agriculture?”

Making agribusiness attractive

The demands of modern agriculture require a more technically competent farmer, he said, which means that this new breed of farmer has to be equipped with the appropriate technical knowledge and academic grounding to tackle the complexity in the sector.

“It is not good to aspire to be a smallholder farmer, which seems fashionable today. We need to go beyond that and earn more and prosper — those kinds of aspirations are needed.

“And we need to make agriculture not appear ‘attractive’, we need to make it profitable and viable,” he said.

Part of this technical capacity building requires that the relationship between large agribusiness and smaller farmers be entered into on a more equal footing. Sunga said that this started with the question of due diligence that agribusiness won’t do on the smallholder farmers, which was a process not always done in reciprocity.

“It is important that these transactions become transformative, they should not help people run on the same spot,” he said. “I think we need arrangements that allow farmers to invest in their enterprises, and to grow and prosper beyond simply putting food on the table.”


Mphilo Dlamini of agribusiness technology provider Syngenta said in his presentation that global ­agriculture was under immense pressure to produce crops to feed the world’s growing population. The challenges of limited land, water and a constrained supply chain demanded increased yields from the available resources.

To this end, companies such as Syngenta were working on developing technologies to raise yields and meet these demands. Dlamini said the company aimed to develop 450-million smallholder farmers operating on less than two hectares to fill this gap. 

The technological promise

John Vorster of mobile technology provider Mezzanine offered a view of the role that technology can play in supporting agricultural development on the continent. “Our emphasis is on linking ­businesses with clients, ­govern­ment or citizens. Our aim is to lower the risk of doing business for farmers by increasing access to information,” he said.

The company has established a presence and networks in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. The role that mobile ­technology can play in Africa has been proved many times, with numerous examples of how the most basic mobile phone can be used to provide access to people in the most far-flung corners of the continent.

Vorster says this ability has been harnessed through creating ­platforms linking small-scale ­farmers and co-operatives to the bigger agricultural supply chain, facilitating access to funders and markets. Although the workflows for various crops or produce differ, the base platform provided by Mezzanine has helped to lower the cost of accessing these information systems as they are shared across the many agricultural sub sectors.

This has created an integrated ecosystem linking previously ­disparate elements of the supply chain, allowing for greater visibility that helps farmers to plan accurately for the types of crops needed and how to get these into markets.