Tonight (July 25) I am flying back from East London to Johannesburg after a day visit. The Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform helped organise a session to explore a couple of ideas and initiatives that could drive agricultural growth and employment in the province.

I was asked to open the session with a few reflections on South Africa’s agricultural economy and highlight the role that the Eastern Cape province can potentially play going forward (I will upload the slides later). I discussed a number of things, but at the core, my message somewhat mimicked a view I shared on this blog a few weeks back.

I will restate it briefly for context. South Africa has about 847 000 people working in the agricultural sector (the Eastern Cape province accounts for 11 percent share). About two-thirds of South Africa’s agricultural jobs are in the field crop and horticultural industries. The employment in these subsectors has slightly increased over the recent past, particularly horticulture. Meanwhile, other subsectors saw a marginal decline. This somewhat tells us that if we are to see an increase in agricultural employment, horticulture will have to be a priority (the rise of technology is not an immediate threat to jobs in this subsector due to its nature of production and harvesting – it’s labour intensive).

Fortunately, there is an old but relevant document to guide us on this front: chapter six of the National Development Plan (NDP). I know some people have become a bit despondent about the NDP’s ambitious goal of creating close to 1-million jobs in agriculture by 2030.

This is partly because the political rhetoric has placed little emphasis on the prerequisites for those jobs to materialise, but the situation can still be turned around if the right enablers are put in place.

Among these are the need to bring underutilised land in communal areas and land reform farms into commercial production, expand irrigation systems, and identify and support agricultural expansion in areas that have a high potential for growth and employment. This will require investment and strong and efficient institutions.

Given that there is a need to focus on communal land, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo would potentially be focus areas for expansion and growth in the South African agricultural sector. These are also provinces with the highest unemployment.

South African policymakers should revisit the NDP with a clear intent to create strategies that will enable job creation. Regarding the feasibility of the 1-million jobs target aside, I think there is room for expansion, provided the aforementioned prerequisites are put in place. Again, the key subsector to focus on is horticulture, which is labour-intensive and there is a growing demand for horticultural products on the global market.

The upskilling of the agricultural labour force to align it with the changing technological environment, increasing investment, research and development and financial support to developing farmers, are key to improving the prospects of the sector.

In closing, I mentioned five major aspects that could constrain growth in the province’s agricultural sector — (1) uncertainty regarding land reform, especially communal tenure, (2) climate change, (3) lack of biosecurity measures, (4) water rights regulations and  (5) infrastructure.

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