I started writing for Business Day regularly in 2016. My intention at the time was to ensure that the developments in the SA agricultural economics don’t go unnoticed, especially events with broader implications on food prices, jobs, broader sustainability and growth of the agricultural sector.

As my column and its audience grew, I started writing also about some of the issues that are closer to my heart. One such topic is the untapped agriculture and agro-processing potential in the Eastern Cape and other former homeland regions of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

I cannot say for sure if I have managed to plant a seed or emphasise the point enough for readers and policymakers to always think of the economic potential of these regions, and act on such information. At times, it even feels as if one has been writing and mentioning these provinces more often, to an extent of saturation.

But the drive I take each December from Pretoria to the Eastern Cape is a constant reminder, not only of the agricultural economic potential of the Eastern Cape, but also the poverty and unemployment that plague the province. Agriculture holds potential to change the fortunes of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo and other rural regions.

A few years ago, I had hoped that by the end of 2020 some of the potentials that I and many others have written about since the publication of the National Development Plan in 2012 could have been realised or there could be work under way to realise the potential.

Also, the election of Oscar Mabuyane as the seventh premier of the Eastern Cape in May 2019 added hope. Mabuyane ran on the promise of ensuring that the province’s agricultural potential is realised. Now, agricultural development takes time and it would be a mistake to prejudge whether Mabuyane has followed through with this promise. More so as the Covid-19 pandemic has complicated the development agenda of the province.

With that said, it would have been encouraging to see how the Eastern Cape plans to practically lean on agriculture as part of the economic recovery strategy from the current pandemic.

Conversations with smallholder farmers and my fellow countrymen in the Eastern Cape about whether they are feeling a “wind of change” about agriculture development from the provincial government remains downbeat. Whatever efforts are being done in Bisho, they have not convincingly reached the smallholder farmers in the villages of Lusikisiki, Flagstaff, Bizana and other small towns.

It is also these small towns that have an abundance of underutilised land, while being in extreme poverty.

Assisting smallholder farmers in these regions and other similar ones will not be a new initiative. There have been attempts in the past, which, in the near term can assist in bringing hope and agricultural vibrancy. But farmers in such regions struggle to sustain themselves without constant government assistance. This, however, is a luxury we don’t have in current fiscal constraints facing the government.

The essential ingredient for long-term agricultural development in the province is what policymakers and researchers have always known; the commercialisation of black farmers. This should not only be an agenda in the former homelands of the Eastern Cape but in other provinces as well.

The commercialisation of black farmers will demand a different policy orientation from government and traditional leaders — from land governance policy to farmer support programmes. In terms of land governance, long-term tradable leases are a preferred method to unlock capital, and also incentivise farmers to take care of the land.

Investment in infrastructure is an important prerequisite. Thereafter, the farmer support programmes need to lean, in part, on the private sector to draw expertise that the government might not have.

Financing is one essential area that needs increased attention for both primary farmers and agro-processing. The Land Bank, which is seen as a vehicle to underpin transformation, has a disappointing track record on this objective and is underperforming. This means there needs to be more innovative agricultural financing instruments to underpin the agricultural expansion in the former homelands.

In the process, the government and traditional leaders will need to be cognisant of the prerequisites for such potential financing instruments. This is a subject that needs to be at the heart of the agriculture master plan which the government is finalising.

Within the next two weeks, people will be returning to work and economic reconstruction will be the priority, alongside meeting the Covid-19 health challenges. Agriculture and agriculture-processing is part of the economic reconstruction plan, but the approach this time needs not to merely be at the national level, with hazy details on implementation at the local level.

Importantly, the real expansion of agricultural activity will need an increase of production in areas that haven’t been predominantly active. These are mainly the former homelands, where I have longed to see improvement. Importantly, these are areas with higher levels of poverty and unemployment, while on underutilised lands which could help change the fortunes of the residents.

If there is anything positive to take from this pandemic, it would be the urgency to increase agriculture and agriculture-processing in areas that have long been talked about without a practical effort to realise their potential.

This essay first appeared on Business Day, December 28, 2020

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo).

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