Desperate to reap the former homelands’ elusive harvests

Government-funded development agency Asgisa Eastern Cape, food giant Unilever South Africa and the Development Bank of South Africa recently signed an agreement in East London to promote crop production to supply Unilever’s processed food range. Mike Burgess assesses the developmental challenges that may face this agreement, as reflected in a paprika project near Keiskammahoek, and possible long-term solutions to an embarrassing developmental vacuum in the region.

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The government-funded development agency agiSA Eastern Cape’s attempts to commercialise agricultural development in the former homelands of the Transkei and Ciskei, and partner with private companies to create greater scope for production, has many sensing a wind of change. Recently Agisa EC, the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) and Unilever South Africa signed an agreement in East London to increase crop production in the province and supply Unilver SA’s processed food range. But only time will tell if this will help ease the agricultural developmental backlog in the former Transkei.

“Commercial production is about consistency of supply, quality and predictability, but if you can’t achieve these things, you won’t have sustainable agriculture,” says Simpiwe Somdyala, CEO of Asgisa EC. And the demands of sustainable commercial agriculture are well known to him.

Asgisa EC was launched in 2007 to reverse failed government initiatives such as the Massive Food Production Programme and the Green Revolution Strategy, initially aimed at large-scale cropping by applying commercial principles to rural developmental on a portion of the 500 000ha that had been identified as underutilised or lying fallow. Therefore Asgisa EC’s existence is encouraging, with almost 20 000ha of maize (and in some areas beans) planted as part of a dry-land cropping programme in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons.

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However, harvesting has proved erratic with maize yields ranging from as little as 0,5/ha to as much as 7/ha across the Transkei last year. In addition, the expense of establishing crops has been high and has included repairing access roads, erecting fences to keep communal stock out of crops and resurrecting lands dormant for decades. These factors have pushed up costs – in some cases up to R12 000/ha.

But as Somdyala explains, applying high-yielding commercial techniques to the developmental challenges of the former homelands, that include access and distance to markets, is at least a start. He explains that Unilever SA’s involvement with Asgisa EC was opportune, as they provide a valuable market for the cropping programme. In future it will include other crops used by Unilever, like paprika, peaches, apricots and vegetables. Unilever SA chairperson Gail Klintworth says the potential of the association with Asgisa EC and the DBSA is limitless. “That’s if we can get the right kind of quality, the right kind of cost and the right kind of scale.”

The trouble with Keiskammahoek paprika

A paprika project in Keiskammahoek, which was created to supply Unilever and has been funded by a R7 million DBSA grant since 2008, only produced 79t in 2009. With 13ha of water-logged paprika condemned for use by Unilever foods this year, from a total of 50ha to be harvested, things are clearly not running smoothly. “We didn’t make a big profit to carry us through the next season, but things are still happening,” says manager of the Keiskammahoek Paprika Project (KPP), Jeri du Plessis.

“You kind of thump along and the wheels come off and then you thump along, but to us, that’s growth.” She manages the project with her husband Brian for the DBSA via the Siyakholwa Development Foundation which the couple established several years ago to boost development in the region. DBSA agricultural specialist and a former Zimbabwean commercial farmer Richard Schley explains that input costs for paprika can be as high as R30 000/ha to R40 000/ha. This in turn demands a yield of at least 2,7t/ha to 3t/ha just to cover costs.

In strict commercial terms, the KPP is a failure, despite access to the gravity-fed Zanyokwe Irrigation Scheme, fed by the nearby Sandile Dam. Ironically, the major obstacle to development on the scheme seems to be the very farmers the Du Plessis’s were supposed to help over the past 12 years.

Communal politics in Keiskammahoek
Farmers on the scheme have access to small plots of land of about 1ha through long-term leases with traditional authorities. Subsistence crops like maize and cabbage are mostly grown. These farmers are not keen to cultivate “inedible” paprika, explains intern Yanga Mtakatya from the nearby Fort Cox agricultural college.

Such perceptions have resulted in many farmers not wanting to get involved in the project, which has minimised the efficient access to land for paprika production. Due to a patchwork of scattered plots of paprika, management and especially rotational demands remain a constant challenge (last year’s paprika plots are under maize this year).

Then there’s the lack of communal commitment to the project, a lethargy symbolised by the inability to recruit only a few community members for weeding over December. “The main problem is converting rural farmers into commercial farmers – it’s a huge jump,” Jeri says. “Most of them weren’t even growing cabbages and maize – they were doing nothing. And you can’t take a big stick to the person who owns the land. You just have to hope he will step forward on his own.”

Thobeka Sooi, one of the 42 KPP farmers, agrees that a lack of communal commitment and access to capital has been a problem on the scheme since its collapse in the 1980s, after the productive years while it was still a Bantustan. “We were just sitting around our houses before Jeri and Brian came,” says Sooi.

Crucial to getting consensus on how to tackle the project along commercial lines will be effective political facilitation at the Zanyokwe scheme. Its something Unilever’s Gail Klintworth hinted at when she remarked: “What often undermines what we’re trying to do is that unnecessary politics get involved.”

Commercial success on communal land
“What you have here is this beautiful setup of available water and good land, but not it’s being used,” says Schley. “And it brings tears to your eyes when you see that it’s not just here – it’s at Ncora, Qamata and all over the place.”The almost 500ha Zanyokwe scheme is only one of many underutilised irrigation schemes in the Eastern Cape, with millions of rands of unused and decaying infrastructure – testimony to rural mediocrity and political failure.
The only way to turn the table, says Schley, is to engage with the commercial agricultural sector and apply their skills and planning. He explains that exit strategies in agricultural development should always match entry strategies through a process of meticulous assessment of all variables and threats before a decision is made to establish a project.

“You have to plan properly – look at the soils, the available resources, the community structures, look at everything before you put a plough in the ground,” he says. “It may also be better for a community to have their land under grass and graze it.”He explains that once a decision has been made to begin a project, it’s critical to continue the monitoring, assessment and evaluation. Finally, all involved need to recognise that creating sustainable commercial agricultural ventures takes time.

“Everybody wants a quick fix and there’s no quick fix. It’s a three- to five-year programme to get the soil to what it should be. To think that your paprika project is going to be the equivalent of a commercial crop further up country in two years is just not realistic.”
Contact Mike Burgess on 082 319 1657,  or [email protected]   

A promising partnership: Asgisa EC and Amadlelo Agri

Asgisa EC’s determination to expand commercial agricultural production in the former Transkei is symbolised by the development agency’s wish to partner development company, Amadlelo Agri. Created by 70 commercial farmers in 2004, Amadlelo Agri has been instrumental in creating two successful developmental dairy initiatives in the former Ciskei.

Both are managed along strict commercial terms, and both make profit. “We’ve already engaged Amadlelo about expanding one of the schemes in the Transkei,” said Somdyala. “We’ll be targeting about 5 000ha, not just for dairy, but other integrated initiatives that will involve crops for Unilever.”

Poor local governance the first thing to fix
“Our focus is to turn around the way municipalities operate – it’s a big job, but if we don’t start, it won’t happen,’’ says the DBSA Development Fund chairperson Prof. Brian Figaji about the bank’s determination to improve local governance to ensure a suitable environment for rural development.

He explains that the DBSA has 500 employees providing support in engineering, technical, planning and finance issues to various local authorities in South Africa. Another 15 key candidates are being trained in European local government structures. Furthermore, the DBSA has also developed an educational programme in municipal infrastructure operations and maintenance, to better equip individuals to address infrastructural decay in municipal areas. “Operations and maintenance seem to be words that have been forgotten in municipalities,” he says. “We all buy things, but we don’t look after them.”