South Africa’s agricultural economy not in good shape, for now

South Africa’s agricultural economy not in good shape, for now

Although South Africa’s economy has recovered from the previous quarter’s poor economic performance with a 3.1% quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted growth rate (q/q saar), agriculture did not contribute to the improvement. After a strong contraction (16.8%) during the first quarter of 2019, we[1] were optimistic that things would turn around for South African agriculture. We hoped that base effects coupled with improved horticultural production would trigger a recovery for the sector. However, we were wrong.

Data shows that the sector is in recession – having contracted a further 4.2% q/q/ saar in the second quarter of 2019, largely owing to a poor field crop harvest in the summer rainfall areas as a result of droughts earlier this year.

While this surprised us, it is important to note that these are seasonally adjusted numbers, which means that the increased horticulture activity on the ground may not be reflected in a similar size in the data. The data is weighed down by major summer crops, which performed poorly during the 2018/19 production season – maize, soybeans and sunflower seed production are down by 12% y/y, 21% y/y and 24% y/y, to 11.02 million tonnes, 1.17 million tonnes and 680 940 tonnes, respectively.

Given both the data and our observations of broader agricultural activity, we believe that South Africa’s agricultural sector will underperform in 2019.  We predict that the sector will contract by approximately 2% y/y this year, because of generally poor summer grains and oilseed harvest in the 2018/19 production season.

Sentiments across the South African farming environment is relatively negative. The Agbiz/IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index, which has historically proved to be a good indicator of the growth path of the South African agricultural economy, has been rather unstable in the most recent quarters, but remains in the contractionary territory, having eased 44 points in the second quarter of 2019. This is below the neutral 50-point mark and reflects the negative perceptions held by agribusinesses about South Africa’s business climate.

Given that the sector’s poor performance is largely due to unfavourable weather conditions, prospects of higher-than-average rainfall in the 2019/20 summer season provides hope that the blip will be short-lived and that gains are just around the corner – in 2020.

Read my Business Day column tomorrow, 04 September 2019, I provide further evidence for our optimistic view of South Africa’s agricultural performance in 2020.

[1] By using the word “we” — I’m referring to our inhouse view at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz).

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Does Nigeria’s decision to stop providing forex for food imports matter if you are a SA farmer?

Does Nigeria’s decision to stop providing forex for food imports matter if you are a SA farmer?

The headline of this post captures the consistent question I kept getting from folks after publishing an essay arguing that the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Agreement would potentially open additional avenues for South African products to destinations where the country hasn’t largely participated in over the recent past.

So for a background; on 14 August 2019, we learned that Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, has instructed the country’s central bank to stop providing foreign currency for food imports. President Buhari took it to Twitter to explain his rationale behind this step (see here). In brief, Buhari wants to improve Nigeria’s agricultural production and attaining more food security. And his hope, I think, is that a reduction in imports in the face of solid domestic food demand will be a catalyst for domestic production.

From a South African perspective, Nigeria is potentially an important market because of its purchasing power and population. My hope, as I explained in this essay, was that countries such as Nigeria would in future be areas that South Africa would have to expand its agricultural footprint under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. This might still hold, but it is not clear how long will the Nigerian government restrict the foreign exchange for food imports.

As things stand, Nigeria’s action will have minimal impact on South Africa’s agriculture and food industry. Over the past five years, Nigeria accounted for a mere 2% of South Africa’s agricultural exports to the African continent. The products involved are apples, pears, prepared food, wines, grapes, fruit juices, sauces and seasonings, amongst other products.  While these are high-value products, it’s a small share of South Africa’s agricultural (and food) exports that goes to Nigeria and can be diverted to other markets within the continent where South African has a footprint or in the global market.

What will be interesting to watch over the next few months is whether Nigeria succeeds in this policy approach (Let us face it; there are better ways of improving one’s agricultural sector than limiting foreign exchange for imports. This is a topic for another day). Over the past five years, Nigeria’s agricultural and food imports averaged US$4.7 billion, as shown in Figure 1 below. The products on top of the imports list are wheat, sugar, milk, palm oil, sauces and seasonings, bottled water, apples, pears, maize and vegetables oil.

Figure: Nigeria’s agricultural trade
Source: ITC, Agbiz Research

There is a potential to reduce the imports of some of these products, but this won’t be an overnight event. It will take years of investment in agricultural production and value chain. I will revisit this topic in a few months’ time when we have some evidence on how this policy approach has been accommodated by the Nigerian people and businesses.

The bottom-line view is that this development will have minimal impact over the foreseeable future to farmers in South Africa.

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