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Letters to the editor: June 21 to 28

Last week’s article on youth and agriculture by Dr Luke Metelerkamp, “Youth want to farm, but not as slave labour”, carries a great deal of merit. Various studies have indicated that, across the board, less than 3% of South African school leavers and only 3% to 5% of land restitution beneficiaries actually want to farm, and that only 4% of subsistence farmers are under the age of 30.

In sharp contrast to these figures is the estimated 10 000 young men and women who are tertiary graduates in agriculture, trained at great expense to the state, and often at great sacrifice by their families, who are unemployed. They want to farm and have the potential to become successful commercial farmers. Many are working as tellers in supermarkets, driving taxis or sitting at home

The Fetsa Tlala programme, launched in late 2014 amid great fanfare by the departments of rural development and land reform and of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, promised that one million hectares (ha) of vacant land under traditional authorites would be cultivated by 2019.

It has never happened.

The numbers accompanying the failure to accommodate these talented and willing young men and women is a damning indictment of the failure of the ministers of those departments to implement their policies.

One million hectares of maize for the 2018-2019 season conservatively equates to six million tons of maize at R2 500 a tonne, giving a gross income of R2.5-billion. This also equates to 50% of the maize crop produced by white commercial farmers. Or to 1 000 new black commercial farmers each farming 1 000ha, or 2 000 new black commercial farmers each farming 500ha.

Added to this is more than 100 000ha of high-yield potential land ideal for fresh vegetable and fruit production, most of it irrigated, that is lying unused or underused. At a gross margin of R40 000 a hectare these moribund land parcels would yield a gross margin of R4-billion a year, every year, create thousands of new young black farmers and provide a work income for 200 000 families.

Each year that has gone past has been lost forever.

The principles and policies behind land restitution, redistribution and reform cannot be faulted. They are morally, socially and economically sound. But the manner in which these principles and policies have been mismanaged and corrupted is a betrayal of the very people these principles and policies were designed to uplift. It has also been a betrayal of the agrarian portion of the National Development Plan.

Promises by both previous ministers to include and listen to private sector expertise proved to be mere window-dressing.

Fortunately, in the latter part of last year, the first breath of fresh air blew across the agricultural scene in the form of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture. This was accompanied by the formation of the South African Agricultural Development Agency. Both these advisory bodies are made up of a representative range of highly competent private sector participants from every level of food production. They range from academics and economists to highly successful farmers. They report at presidential and Cabinet levels.

The second breath of fresh air has been the appointment of Thoko Didiza as the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development.

It will probably take five years to fully repair the damage that has been done. We should begin to see positive implementation at local levels before 2019 closes its gates. — John Phipson, Mthunzini, KwaZulu-Natal

More than 65% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is smallholding farmers, and about 30% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture. Yet Africa’s full agricultural potential remains untapped.

To fix this trend, African agriculture requires rebranding to appeal to young people: a profitable, lucrative business that uses technology and leverages all their skills, as well as an enterprise that uses social media, smart phones and feature phones, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and the like.

To do this, young people must see the monetary value in agribusiness, by leveraging these technological tools and innovative approaches.

Increased access to education and new forms of agriculture-based enterprise mean that young people can be a vital force for innovation in family farming, increasing incomes and wellbeing at a local level.

But, without access to finance, they will not be able to purchase quality agricultural inputs and make the necessary investments. Presently, even though agriculture contributes 30% to Africa’s GDP, it attracts less than 5% of lending from financial institutions, leaving farmers starved of the capital they need to operate modern-day agribusinesses.

Africa’s youth make up 65% of the continent’s population, but many of them want nothing to do with agriculture, because it is tedious and “dirty”. To many, agriculture is unsexy. It is for the illiterate and older people.

Such a glaring distaste for agriculture, even under the projections by the African Development Bank that Africa’s farmers and agribusinesses could create a trillion-dollar food market by 2030, should concern all people and institutions involved with agriculture, including governments and the private sector.

The most common path to capital is bank loans, with land as collateral. This is an unattractive proposition for farmers, who already bear the risks of production costs, extreme climate, changing market prices and the shocks of geopolitical events.

Lenders, on the other hand, have an incomplete assessment of their risk, especially with potential borrowers who have no credit history.

“Building a platform for risk-sharing is key to upgrading farming practices,” says Munther Dahleh, the William Coolidge professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). To create such a platform, Dahleh and the IDSS team aim to better predict the value of employing advanced farming practices on individual farms. This prediction needs to be accurate enough to encourage investment by lenders and the farmers themselves.

Complementing this will be the need to fund programmes that brand agriculture as an opportunity to be creative, earn a decent income and support agricultural ventures that use tech, biotech and rapid exchange of information. — Anthony Awasom

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