The dark clouds of policy uncertainty and climate change are a form that does not put a smile on farmers’ faces. However, there are some silver linings along the journey of South African agricultural sector that are worth highlighting.

While going through my old photos recently, one shot taken four years ago caught my attention. In it, I was posing with the then Grain SA vice-chairman, Victor Mongoato, looking over the maize fields on the outskirts of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape province. I had been on a visit to a group of thriving black farmers.

Back then, black farmers in the area were producing 6 000 tonnes of maize in an area of roughly 1 200 hectares and they had just commenced training with an organised agriculture group. By the 2016/17 production season, the area planted to maize had increased to 4 000 hectares and the harvest was roughly 28 000 tonnes, according to data from Matatiele Grainco.

These numbers show that the improvement in production was not only because of an increase area planted, but also better farming practices as the yields improved from an average of 5 tonnes per hectares in the 2014/15 production season to around 7 tonnes per hectare in 2016/17. From a national perspective this harvest may seem insignificant, but it is almost a third of the Eastern Cape’s commercial maize and the yield is higher than the national average.

A number of these farmers benefited from the support of organised agriculture groups and private investors such as Grain SA, Grain Farmer Development Association and Masisizane Fund, amongst others. Grain SA has been actively involved in the province through its Farmer Development Program, which focuses on training and skills development. The Masisizane Fund invested about R46 million in farming areas around Matatiele in 2016. In fact, over the past four years, the Masisizane Fund invested about R100 million in farming areas of Alfred Nzo and Harry Gwala municipalities.

The Grain Farmer Development Association has also been assisting emerging farmers with finance to rehabilitate and prepare farm land for grain production purposes across the Eastern Cape province. The aforementioned improvement in maize yields is a result of the combined effort of these initiatives.

I have previously reported on the emergence of new black agricultural firms in the Eastern Cape province. The most notable ones are the Matatiele Grainco which focuses on agricultural mechanisation and transportation of grain across the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. Another of these is Afgrain, also a black-owned food group which focuses on farmer development and value chain activities in the Eastern Cape.

The grain farming experience in the Eastern Cape is used an example from my own background, but such developments are not limited to grain farming. Other entities such as wool growers in communal areas are also making good strides with increasing quality and volumes delivered to the market. There is also great work being done in the citrus and many other industries.

The common theme is that these successful examples are underpinned by support from both organised agriculture and government.

These initiatives are refreshing, and I hope that we can reflect on during our transformation and economic development debates within the agricultural sector. Importantly, we must strive to find ways to enhance these new developments and replicate them in other areas.

I must highlight however that it is not all rosy in the farming areas of Matatiele as farmers face a number of challenges that hinder agricultural production.

These include, among others, poor infrastructure (roads and silos) across agricultural-production zones, as well as the issue of communal land tenure which limits their ability to access additional finance from commercial financial institutions that typically require collateral for larger loans.

While most of these challenges can be addressed through policy interventions, organised agriculture can also assist by increasing its presence in many parts of the country, especially in imparting knowledge and sharing skills.

* Written for and first published in Business Day on 15 March 2018.

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