Development Strategies in Africa’s Agriculture Should be More Inclusive Across Gender and Age

Strategic interventions should be informed by facts in order to be effective in addressing societal challenges. This rings true to the gender debate in the agricultural sector. Many researchers (myself included) have been arguing that women should get more support if we are to boost Africa’s crop production, owing to the role that female farmers play in agricultural crop production.

This argument is typically premised on the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) documents which suggest that 80% of Africa’s agricultural production comes from small farmers, who are mostly rural women.  Concurring with this notion is the World Farmers Organisation, which argues that “women comprise the largest percentage of the workforce in the African agricultural sector, but do not have access and control over all land and productive resources.”

Against this backdrop, the World Bank released a book in October 2017 which questions a number of datasets and statements about Africa’s agricultural sector. The book is titled Agriculture in Africa: Telling Myths from Facts. It covers a wide range of topics from smallholder farmer land access, financing of agricultural inputs, labour productivity and women’s work in agriculture amongst others.

Having recently written an article on women’s contribution to the agricultural sector, I was quickly drawn in on the chapter that dealt with the subject. The first thing which stood out was the notion that the figure often cited, namely, that roughly 80% of agricultural labour input in Africa is by women, is flawed. The book puts women’s share of labour in crop production at an average of 40%, with variations across countries. Worth noting, however, is that the data does not cover the entire continent, but selected countries, namely: Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. With that said, these countries cover a wide extent of the continent’s farming zones.

Across the aforementioned countries, the highest share of women’s contribution to agricultural labour is 56% in Uganda, with the lowest being 24% in Niger. Although there is room for error in these survey results, the data is nonetheless illuminating and poses bigger questions about the support systems and strategies that will be necessary to increase Africa’s food supply. Should support systems be focused on women empowerment or be inclusive to anyone that produces food for the continent?

Another salient point in the book is the need to focus on tapping into the biggest source of under-utilised human capital, which at this stage is the unemployed youth, in order to promote food production.

Overall, the key takeaway from the World Bank’s book is that strategic interventions need to be backed by solid research as incorrect assumptions could have long-term implications for society. For instance, based on the aforementioned flawed labour statistics, men would find themselves at the lower end of agricultural support systems. However, in light of this new data, the focus should rather be at calibrating more gender-inclusive policies and also prioritise youth involvement.

In countries such as South Africa where farmers are ageing with the average age estimated at 62, youth involvement in food production will be key for long-term sustainability.

The commonly held view is that young people show little interest in the agricultural sector – preferring sophisticated office jobs. On face value, this notion is plausible. But there is limited evidence to support the claim.

Overall, my take considering the book’s findings is that development strategies in the agricultural sector should be more inclusive across gender and age spectrum. Then again, from a continuity perspective, perhaps the youth should be the priority, as we are a young continent, with ageing farmers.

Notes on South Africa’s Wheat Import Tariff

The movements of the international wheat prices will be of importance in the local market this season. This is not only due to their influence on local wheat prices, but also their implications on the import tariff. South Africa’s wheat import tariff is currently at R716.30 per tonne. A new import tariff level can only trigger when international wheat prices deviate by more than US$10 per tonne from the base price for three consecutive weeks.

Over the past two weeks, the international wheat prices consistently traded higher than the base price of US$218.00 per tonne by more than US$10 per tonne. If this trend continues for another week, a new wheat import tariff, which would be less than the current rate of R716.30 per tonne, could be triggered.


A bit of context — the recent uptick in international prices was largely underpinned by concerns of dryness in the U.S. Plains. However, the recent monthly report from the United States Department of Agriculture somewhat eased the fears of possible crop damage. The agency left its 2017/18 US wheat production estimate unchanged from last month at 47 million tonnes.

Moreover, the agency revised its 2017/18 global wheat production estimate up by 0.2% from January 2018 to 758 million tonnes. This is 1% higher than the 2016/17 production season. These developments suggest that the international wheat prices could slightly decline from levels seen in the past few weeks as the market is well supplied. Such a scenario would break the price trend observed in the past two weeks, and thereafter the prospects of a change in the South African wheat import tariff.

The wheat import tariff is of importance as South Africa’s 2017/18 marketing year wheat import estimate is the second largest on record, estimated at 1.9 million tonnes. The country has thus far imported 40% of the seasonal import forecast, which makes trade matters vital as a large share of wheat is yet to be imported.

SA Government’s Agricultural Jobs Target Not Attainable

I have been thinking a bit about South Africa’s agricultural job market, after the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries promised to create half a million jobs by the year 2019. While I appreciate the optimism, such a target will not be attainable with current farming technologies and erratic weather conditions. Actually, there already were jobs cut in the agricultural sector at the beginning of last year. Combined, the agricultural job cuts for the past three quarters of 2017 are at 109 000. This placed South Africa’s agricultural labour force at 810 000 jobs. This was mainly due to reduced activity in the Western Cape province caused by drier weather conditions.

Without getting into detail of government plans to create ‘jobs’, the long-term trend of the agricultural labour market presents interesting developments (see Figure 1). The number of people employed in the South African agricultural sector increased from 802 000 in the 1910s to a peak of 1 665 000 in the 1960s. Afterwards, it decreased to an average of 750 000 in the 2010s. These numbers account for both seasonal and permanent labour.Labour 1 chartAlso worth noting is that agriculture’s share of total employment has declined significantly over the past 77 years (see Figure 2). Back in the 1940s, the agricultural sector used to be one of the leading employers, with an average share of 42% in total employment. This, however, has changed over the years due to the introduction of new technologies in the sector, as well as growth and expansion in labour participation in other sectors of the economy. Between the 1940s and 2010s, the agricultural labour share in total employment declined 21-fold to 5%.Labour 2 chart

The aspirations of the South African government are to change the trend of the declining job market by creating an additional half a million jobs next year. Given the developments in Figure 1 and 2, this job creation target is an amazing, and by “amazing” I mean impossible, target to reach. 

African Farming Must Plot Its Own Course

Last month, I came across an interesting article by US agricultural economist Jayson Lusk, highlighting the disruptive trends in food and agriculture.

Lusk identified six key trends on the horizon, the two most notable being blockchain – the technology that facilitates bitcoin trades and could be applied to other industries — and online food buying (Amazon might do to food what it has done in other industries).

While I agree with Lusk’s sentiments, Africa’s food and agricultural sector is still developing and might follow a slightly different trajectory to that of developed economies in the near to medium term. Some of the more pertinent near-term megatrends were identified in a research paper by agricultural economists Lulama Ndibongo Traub, Felix Yeboah, Ferdinand Meyer and Thomas Jayne.

These included:

  • The youth bulge, which speaks to the fact that 45% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is below the age of 15 and over the next two decades will be looking for employment, which will potentially be in the agricultural sector.
  • Climate change and the management of environmental risks. The exact effects of climate change are still uncertain and are likely to vary across various regions, but two general predictions are that much of Africa will experience greater variability in rainfall and a rise in temperatures. This, naturally, would have an effect on agricultural production and possibly cause a drop in crop production. This would inevitably alter the geographical spread of crops, and affect horticulture and animal production. While other sectors of the economy may experience a greater focus on climate change mitigation, agriculture will need to focus on climate change adaptability.
  • Telecommunications revolution. There is likely to be continued growth in Africans’ use of mobile banking and software-based provision of information and services.

I concur with all the aforementioned trends, and would add a few others I believe will also underpin the food and agricultural sector in the medium to long term, particularly for Africa:

  • Infrastructure. Although the South African agricultural sector is arguably one of the most advanced on the continent, there is still room for improvement. This is particularly evident in communal areas. Therefore, the subject of infrastructure and technological advancement will remain a key focus for commercial and smallholder farmers across the continent.
  • Technology. There are already clear examples of this through precision farming, big data, drones, satellites and other methods. Moreover, the climate change challenge could lead to further developments in seed breeding in an effort to find seeds that would adapt best to erratic rainfall.
  • Demographics. Africans are urbanising, which means more people will be getting their daily foods from retailers instead of producing it themselves. This is an opportunity for agribusinesses to expand their share in the retail space to meet the needs of urban consumers.

Overall, the agricultural sector will need to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change, technology, infrastructure and proactive social and environmental sustainability initiatives.

The sectors will need to become more agile and innovative to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the urbanising demographic of the African continent and labour supply.

The need for innovation and agility will only become more imperative for the continent, as its tracts of land will be expected to not only feed Africa but also to contribute more to the food security of the growing global population.

* Written for and first published in Business Day on 01 February 2018.

The Biggest Agricultural Story in SA in the Last Week of January 2018

The biggest agricultural story in South Africa in the last week of January 2018 was the release of the preliminary summer crop planting estimates. This is an important data print. It signals the potential size of South Africa’s grains and oilseeds production for a particular season and therefore has a direct impact on all South Africans in terms of our national food supplies. 

Area planted chart_SA Summer crops

Summer crops in this context refer to yellow maize, white maize, sunflower seed, soybeans, groundnuts (peanuts), sorghum and dry beans. The preliminary estimates showed that the overall area planted with summer crops declined by 7% year-on-year in the 2017/18 production season to 3.70 million hectares.

However, a closer look shows that the picture is somewhat mixed as the 2017/18 summer crop production season experienced erratic weather conditions. The eastern parts of the country received a fair amount of rainfall, which is good for crops such as yellow maize and soybeans that are predominantly planted in the region. Meanwhile, the central and western parts of South Africa received very little rainfall in the final few weeks of 2017, and also had a drier start to 2018, thus negatively affecting crops such as white maize and sunflower seed in this particular region.

The National Crop Estimates Committee’s preliminary plantings data mirrored this variation in weather patterns by showing a decline in hectares planted in almost all crops in the western parts of the country. Most notably, white maize and sunflower seed hectares declined by 22% and 12% from the 2016/17 production season to 1.3 million hectares and 560 100 hectares, respectively.

Whereas, crops planted in the eastern regions of South Africa showed an increase in hectares. The most notable crops were yellow maize and soybean area plantings which increased by 4% and 22% from the 2016/17 production season to 1.0 million hectares and 701 000 hectares, respectively.

Overall, these developments show that staple crops such as maize could decline significantly from the record harvest of 16.7 million tonnes in the 2016/17 production season. In fact, our initial estimates at the Agricultural Business Chamber suggest that 2017/18 total maize production could decline to 11.2 million tonnes.

While this is an immediate concern for farming communities, the outlook for food inflation will not change significantly in the near to medium term due to the buffer of large stocks totalling over 4.1 million tonnes from the 2016/17 production season, as well as the fact that the estimated 11.2 million tonnes (coupled with stocks of over 4.1 million tonnes) are well above South Africa’s annual maize needs of 10.5 million tonnes.

Going forward though, the weather will be a key factor to monitor throughout the production period as it will have notable implication on crop development. Fortunately, the South African Weather Service forecasts above-normal rainfall between this month and April 2018 over the summer rainfall areas, which bodes well for crops.