May 2023 marked a year since the Agriculture & Agro-processing Master Plan was completed and launched. It offers the government and the private sector a framework to grow the sector, build competitiveness, attract more investment, improve inclusion and create jobs.

This year should mark the start of the implementation phase. But progress remains limited, as the focus shifted to energy security at the beginning of the year due to intensified load-shedding. With various interventions such as load curtailment, the extension of diesel rebates, and the Agro-Energy Fund under implementation, the sector should refocus its attention on the master plan and explore means of implementation.

Admittedly, the operating environment in the sector is more challenging than when the plan was drafted. Still, neglecting or delaying implementation will only allow the challenges to worsen. Growth constraints such as biosecurity, infrastructure, widening of export markets, registration of new crop protection chemicals and various commodity-specific and regionalised plans are some of the aspects the Agriculture & Agro-processing Master Plan reflected on.

The broad sector support behind the plan could wane over time if implementation is slow, and we may again find ourselves with another plan that is good on paper but not implemented. Getting out of this state of inertia requires the department of agriculture, land reform & rural development to reconvene the social partners with an implementation proposal at hand.

The department has a few options to gain momentum. The meeting could start with the energy interventions made thus far to assist the sector and how these will be sustained going to the next season, which may be a drought one, with higher demand for irrigation. This is a crucial step as few businesses would commit to the expansions promised in the master plan with no clear sense of the sector energy strategy. Agriculture and agroprocessing are intensive energy users.

The next step would be to remind the sector how the existing blended finance initiative between the department and Land Bank will be broadened to other financing agencies to achieve the required scale to make progress in transforming the sector. This process has been in the works for a few years, and the department should iron out the areas in which there is no alignment yet and bring this in full stream.

The department should launch its Agricultural Development & Land Reform Agency, which came into the public view in 2021 and has been at various stages of refinement since then. It should outline the agency’s mandate and working plan for its first five years in collaboration with the private sector.

This will be a courageous step to get ahead of new entrant farmers’ questions about the need for land. It will also demonstrate that expansion in the agricultural sector will be primarily through “growing the agricultural pie” by bringing into full production underused land. Another vital step that will boldly separate the agency from other land redistribution instruments will be ensuring that new entrant farmers have land with title deeds or tradable long-term leases.

If the department fails to launch the agency sooner, the deliberations in implementing the master plan will always go back to land needs as a hindrance. Therefore, the government should unlock all of these possible stoppages before advocating for a comprehensive implementation of the master plan.

These implementation steps are vital for building trust in the sector, not only between the government and existing role players in agriculture but also other South Africans who aspire to join the sector and have followed these programmes from inception hoping for inclusion and economic opportunities.

The sector’s stakeholders will also be more appreciative of the seriousness of government programmes and policy if there is full-scale implementation of all these steps. There may be faults at the starting stages, which provides us with an opportunity to learn and improve policy and programme design along the way.

Written for and first appeared on Business Day.

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