I attended the Karoo Winter Wool Festival at the weekend. Hosted in Middelburg, in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, the festival was a wonderful event, showcasing the value chain activities of the sheep industry and the rich Karoo heritage.

I was one of the speakers at this exciting event, and my message to farmers and other stakeholders focused on how SA can promote agricultural growth in this sparse, remote region by unlocking its natural assets and heritage.

There are various opportunities to pursue, including the region’s food heritage, high-end fashion and agritourism. Exploring and expanding these opportunities would ensure that Karoo farmers can diversify and improve their revenue streams by not solely depending on the wool export market.

High dependence on wool exports can come with challenges, such as when China temporarily banned SA wool, leading to a 22% year-on-year decline in the country’s wool export earnings in 2022.

So what to do? At the most basic level we need to eat to live, and food carries the smells and tastes of places, families and histories. It matters to people how, what and when they eat, and sometimes where their food comes from. Thus, food heritage is linked to ecology, sustainability, health and origin.

Exploring food in the context of heritage can raise interesting questions about identity, people’s relationship to the land, the availability and quality of local produce, poverty and health. This would not be the first time this is done. Various countries in Europe in particular continue to benefit from their food heritage.

In 2010 Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, France and Mexico successfully nominated the Mediterranean diet, Mexican cuisine and the gastronomical meal of the French as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity under the Unesco Convention.

Food heritage offers obvious spin-offs in product development, economic value and tourism. There are elements of these foreign food heritage products on our leading supermarkets’ shelves, but somehow the same retailers do not showcase our own heritage to the same degree.

The Karoo is SA’s hinterland and one of the natural assets of the Northern, Eastern and Western Capes due to its pristine natural beauty and clean air, as well as peace and quiet. It therefore has strong potential commercial and marketing value, which farmers can use.

“Karoo” has been widely misappropriated by various individuals and businesses, misrepresenting products such as “Karoo lamb”. Karoo region farmers therefore need to reclaim the brand by:

  • Registering it as a geographical indication.
  • Lifting Karoo lamb out of the meat commodity market and creating its own pricing and distribution structure.
  • Creating a different price point for Karoo lamb.
  • Enforcing quality and food safety standards.
  • Ensuring producer control of the supply chain and forming strategic partnerships with abattoirs, packers and wholesalers.
  • Preventing overdominance by major retail chains.
  • Educating consumers about the quality and value of Karoo lamb.

SA consumers are already buying European geographical indication products in our supermarkets. Many cheeses and ham carry the famous EU geographical indication logos, and retailers sell these famous names protected by EU legislation.

SA introduced similar regulations in 2019, enabling rooibos and soon Karoo lamb as the country’s first geographical indication products. Ongoing efforts in this regard have brought about interesting spin-offs in relation to the fashion industry, which have the potential to add tremendous value to the Karoo.

The global fashion industry, especially the luxury goods and clothing industry, is now demanding wool, mohair and leather from the Karoo because of its reputation for quality and its heritage.

The Karoo is an important region in SA, and we need to continuously think of creative strategies to support the sheep and other industries as well as agritourism there.

Written for and first published in Business Day.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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