We are emerging from a week of celebrating the South African wool and sheep industry. On June 13, South Africa’s National Wool Growers Association held its annual Congress in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape. The discussions at the Congress were about inclusive growth and transformation, taking stock of the gains we have made since the dawn of democracy. We have not fared badly. I was encouraged by the spirit of the discussions and the sense of optimism in the sector.

A consensus emerged on five areas that should be a primary focus in transformation. First, the South African government and wool industry must work collectively to improve genetics for the new entrant farmers and to assist the existing commercial farmers where there is a need. Second, the government and the wool industry must work together to develop infrastructure for the new farming areas and the former homelands regions of South Africa; this is key for success, and depends largely on the resources government makes available.

Third, skills and training remain vital for new entrant farmers; the National Wool Growers Association and other regional farmers could assist in this path. Fourth, animal disease remains a significant concern. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development should lead the efforts in addressing this challenge collaboratively with the agricultural sector.

Lastly, the theme of land reform and blended finance also emerged from the discussions. The central point was that the government should continue releasing over two million hectares of the state land to beneficiaries with title deeds, and pair that with blended finance. Such a policy step will go far in broadening ownership in the sector.

Once again it became clear that achieving inclusive growth and transformation is possible when government works with the sector, and when state capabilities are geared for delivery. This is particularly more so in respect of fixing municipal infrastructure. The costs of failing municipalities and poorly maintained roads, particularly within the Eastern Cape and the Free State must receive urgent attention in the incoming administration.

The subtle theme, which is vital but perhaps did not dominate the discussion, is a need to search for export markets while ensuring continuous access to China. This essential Chinese market accounts for roughly 70% of South Africa’s wool exports. While this is good for the sector, this level of concentration has risks.

A day after the National Wool Growers Association 2024 Congress, the wool growers went to another exciting event, the Karoo Winter Wool Festival in Middelburg, the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape. The festival is one of the few areas where one can appreciate the sheep industry’s entire value chain.

The hive of activities in this festival was marked by exhibitions of sheep shearing, spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting, and all other fibre crafts of the clothing industry.

Fashion shows were galore, showcasing a range of clothing made of wool, yet another testament of South Africa’s agricultural economic vibrancy. There were also leather material products on display in various stands, with craftsmen readily explaining the origins of the material and the design of clothes. At lunch, one could find nourishing mutton and lamb products from the Karoo and various regions of the country.

Those in the “knowledge economy” also had time and eager audiences to share views about pressing issues in the country.

The Karoo Winter Wool Festival exemplify the strength of the agritourism industry in South Africa. Many other value chains and commodities should follow a path where there is a weekend to celebrate a particular commodity and showcase all the value chain activities. This is necessary to promote the industry’s image and help consumers understand the value chains of the agriculture, food, fibre, and beverages industries.

With small and rural towns in South Africa deteriorating while the farming sector and agribusiness are still active, it may be well worth promoting agritourism. This would be a way to support declining towns and help South Africans fully appreciate the agricultural value chains and the interconnectedness of the sector to our lives.

Written for and first published in the Business Day.

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