Big lessons from a tiny country

Costa Rica’s farmers are a model for independence, hard work and discipline. Can we learn from them?

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The previous North West MEC of Agriculture, Boitumelo Tshwene, once said that South Africa’s emerging farmers had developed a dependency culture and were spoiled. On a visit a few weeks ago to Costa Rica in Central America, where I saw the hardships faced by that country’s small-scale farmers, I found myself thinking of Tswene’s words.

Costa Rica is a small country with about four million inhabitants. Despite the famous natural beauty of the place, its inhabitants – certainly the small-scale farmers – have a good deal to grumble about. The country’s infrastructure is poor, roads are in a very bad state and many people live in poverty. By comparison, South Africa seems advanced and luxurious. Yet the farmers whom I met were cheerful and contented. Working on their own on small plots, they are energetic and many have achieved success.

I was part of a department of agriculture delegation headed by Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson which was studying how small-scale farmers in Costa Rica are working with Wal-Mart on ‘direct farming’. This is a model designed by the retailing giant to provide farmers with a ready market, offtake agreements and training. The offtake agreements – a guarantee by Wal-Mart to buy future produce – allows them to access finance much more easily.

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The system seems to be working very well. But what interested me most of all was the farmers’ tough, go-for-it attitude, despite obstacles. Most cannot even dream of owning land because it is simply too expensive. According to one farmer, land costs over US$25/m² (over R200/m²). This adds up to more than R20 000/ha, which explains why most farmers lease the land and typically farm on less than 5ha each.

But this does not stop them from making a good living. One farmer, Mainor Aguilar of Liano Grande, a village outside San José, produces strawberries on only 4ha and his annual turnover is US$150 000 (R1,2 million rand). Entirely on their own
While listening to their stories, I was surprised that none of them mentioned support of any kind, except from Wal-Mart. I questioned them on this, asking what kind of help they were receiving from the Costa Rican government.

Their answer? Nothing. The only support they are given is training, and that is only if they’re lucky. To put it simply, these small-scale farmers don’t receive or expect any help. Yet they don’t complain or throw their toys out of the cot. They get on with the job, knowing that they have no one to rely on but themselves. So they make sure they are efficient and keep things simple, which means no fancy equipment or infrastructure.

I couldn’t help but compare the situation back at home. I’m not saying that farmers should not get any support at all. What I am saying is that emerging farmers should not rely on government for everything. Also, I’ve seen too many cases of government dishing out cash and inputs to farmers who have ended up failing. Could there be some truth in what Tshwene said?