We spent most of July on the road, engaging with agribusiness and sector role-players in various regions of South Africa. The feedback about the near-term outlook was reasonably positive in all our engagements, with many attributing their optimism to the favourable 2022/23 summer crop and 2023/24 winter crop seasons.

The feedback from the horticulture and wine industries also remained encouraging as various stakeholders forecast growth and expansion prospects in the coming years.

The outlook was less optimistic when we engaged the livestock and poultry industries that struggled with higher feed costs and persistent animal disease outbreaks.

Beyond this, what all meetings agreed on was that the persistent load-shedding, rising protectionism in key export markets, rising interest rates, intensified geopolitical tensions, ongoing weakness of municipality service delivery and network industries (water, rail and ports) and deterioration of rural roads remain a significant threat to the sustainability of their businesses.

While these are not necessarily new issues, the extent of weakness this year has reached worrying levels in some. Not all these issues are within the government’s control, but many are, and in such cases, the government should urgently assist. Here are a few of such cases.

First, the summer rainfall, which has supported agricultural production, has also had the downside of exacerbating the damage to neglected rural roads. This is not a challenge faced only by large commercial farmers that serve a broader clientele but all farmers.

The emerging or new-entrant black farmers with limited financial resources face this challenge more acutely. The roads across the rural towns of the Eastern Cape, Free State, North West, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, to name a few provinces, are poorly maintained in some instances in an unusable state.

Compounding this challenge is the reality that South Africa now transports over two-thirds of its agricultural produce by roads, as rail transport has faced its fair share of challenges over the years. This means the higher agricultural output without functional roads does not yield full financial benefit to farmers and agribusinesses, as some have to fund private construction at their own costs to maintain some roads. This happens while the municipalities often have the allocated financial budget to cover their infrastructure needs but mismanage the funds, as so often reported by the Auditor General.

Secondly, the rising protectionism in crucial export markets remains a major challenge. This area requires the South African government to take the lead and help engage with our trading partners to resolve this issue. Moreover, the need for expanding export opportunities has become even more urgent as the agricultural output consistently improves and the country has limited capacity to absorb new produce.

Japan, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Philippines and South Korea are key markets in which South African agriculture and agribusinesses are interested in expanding their presence. While working on new markets, we must maintain access to existing markets such as the EU, Africa, the US, and various Asian markets.

Third, biosecurity remains a challenge as we see through various outbreaks of Foot-and-Mouth disease, African Swine Fever and Avian Influenza. All these outbreaks worsen the operating conditions in industries that have also felt higher costs of inputs.

As a result of these outbreaks, exports of livestock products have also been negatively affected. Therefore, the South African government, along with organized agriculture and industry bodies, should closely work together to address the biosecurity challenges in the country.

As climate change intensifies, animal diseases are likely to be more prevalent. As such, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development should consider earmarking a share of their annual budgets for emergency purposes to deal with animal disease outbreaks.

The issues discussed here aren’t exhaustive, but I believe they highlight the key intervention areas that translate the ideas on paper in various plans into tangible projects.

Written for and first appeared on Business Day.

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

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