Human resources can make or break land reform projects

Sustainability continued to elude those involved in land reform and agriculture, delegates heard at an indaba on Farmer Settlement and Agricultural Sustainability last month at the Durban waterfront.

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"There are some success stories but there are some horror stories. We are not producing sufficient food. In fact, production is declining," said Mdu Mfusi, from the department of agriculture. 

Mfusi said human resources could "make or break any project. If you don’t have capable people on farms to take decisions, for example when to apply chemicals and fertilizers, production will not succeed," he said.

Agribusiness Development Agency (ADA) chief operations officer, Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela said land reform was overloaded with important government objectives, such as social redress and economic development.

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"Collective farming has been a gospel we have preached, but we have come to realize that not every collective will work. We are guilty of having dangled the carrot of saying that if you form a cooperative, we will help you. This collective approach to farming brings the issue that we are expected to coordinate and manage human issues rather than the project itself. I see a lot of frustration from our technical teams, because they are not skilled to deal with people dynamics and they are not being allowed to do what they know," Mkhabela said.

Mkhabela said that when funding a project, institutions needed to have an exit strategy in place, with an endpoint to funding clearly laid out from the start. "Without an exit strategy, we are creating dependence. People must know a grant is just there to kickstart production and not to hold their hand until the cows come home," Mkhabela said.

Dr Sibusiso Dludla, Ithala Agribusiness manager, said it was critical that beneficiaries first acquired land through a lease option. "Farmers need to learn to play the game on a lease before they approach a finance institution to purchase the farm. Another issue is that various departments sometimes give the same money — huge money — to the same client. Most of these people don’t make it at the end of the day."

Dludla recommended the agriculture department reintroduce a mechanisation programme, whereby they subsidised a third of the price of equipment, which had the added benefit of bringing down farmers’ debt. He said farmers needed continuous mentoring on production management and financial skills.

"We are also not farming with the best. We are farming with the rest. That is the problem. Let those who are farmers at heart be given the opportunity to farm," Dludla said.

Mkhabela said no one needed to hear a lecture on how productivity had slipped on farms. "We need to move forward and prevent it from deteriorating further. We need to take collective ownership of the challenges. We will solicit inputs to move forward with land reform and get agriculture back on its feet in the province to create new, productive farmers. We know that cannot be done overnight. The impatience to see results yesterday is one of the problems," Mkhabela said.