The Eastern Cape’s politicians, specifically, its rural development and agrarian reform MEC, Nonkqubela Pieters, was among those who spoke positively about the province’s agricultural prospects in an EC Agriculture Indaba in August.

The barriers to agricultural development in the province have long been discussed. They include the lack of land rights in many communities, poor infrastructure such as silos and roads, lack of irrigation infrastructure, and inefficient local government service delivery for agribusinesses in various towns.

Over the past decade, many analysts (myself included) have urged the provincial government to form strong partnerships with various agribusinesses in the province to address the infrastructure constraints and human capacity challenges, while continuously lobbying the national government for better land governance, which would include tradable land leases and title deeds in various parts of the province.

In each of the conferences I have attended over the years in the Eastern Cape, I often leave with a sense of optimism as politicians always hit the right note about what needs to be done to transform the province’s rural economic fortunes through agriculture.

But when it comes to delivery time, it is almost always a disappointment. If one speaks to any farmer in the province, few can say positive things about the government’s delivery on these promises.

But, of course, the picture is not one-sided — when the effort is made, on rare occasions, the results are positive. I can still recall my visits in September 2019 to various farming businesses in Humansdorp, Engcobo and Keiskammahoek (Qoboqobo), supported by The Co-op — an agribusiness based in Humansdorp — and the provincial government. Conversations with community members in Qoboqobo and workers on the farms were very satisfying and provided an illustration of what is possible through effective partnerships between government, the private sector and communities. These were all black-operated, commercial farming businesses across the aforementioned regions. The blueberry and pepper farm in Qoboqobo employed about 85 people. Indirectly, one can argue that the farm benefited roughly 595 people if we assume each person supports an average family of seven. This farming activity brought vibrancy and economic activity to the villages that typically depended on remittances from the cities.

With the EC Agriculture Indaba behind us now, the province’s politicians and officials shouldn’t just shove back all the optimistic speeches they presented, but instead distil the points that emerged from them into a practical, agricultural strategy for the province. This process should again involve consultations and the buy-in of agribusinesses that could provide the support needed — technical and co-financing. Notably, the sentiment from the national government about the province’s agricultural development is also positive.

The national Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan that is currently at completion stages maps out commodity corridors for development in the Eastern Cape. Importantly, this also means the provincial government should relook at its budgets and realign them with the strategic plans for development.

People can’t speak in one direction and budget in another — under such scenarios, the plans become just a “talk-shop”. This applies also to the national government. Admittedly, the Eastern Cape’s government won’t solve all the provinces’ agricultural development issues at once. Still, an effort to start implementing rigorously would also improve its credibility among farmers, agribusinesses and potential investors who would be potential partners.

As things stand, many partners are tired of positive messages that are typically not backed by action. Hence, capitalising on the current goodwill from various role players would be necessary. I know from interactions with the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) that there is enthusiasm to increase its participation in agriculture.

Also, during the Agriculture Indaba, Transnet provided its long-term strategic view of logistical developments in the province, which will materialise if there is sufficient volumes of agricultural production from the farms. The national government also has a role to play through addressing the land reform challenges, as this transcends the ambit of the provincial government.

The Eastern Cape has agricultural and agro-processing potential but simultaneously a significant challenge of rising poverty and unemployment. This makes a perfect case for policymakers to move with interventions within their reach that would improve the province’s economic conditions.

I hope the 2022 EC Agriculture Indaba does not focus on the same issues discussed in 2021 but rather on tracking progress and assessing various interventions that will be made in the next few months, and how better and faster agricultural development could be addressed in the province.

This essay first appeared in The Herald, 07 September 2021

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