These markets are closed to farmers

Much has changed since 1994, but there has been no breakthrough in improving access to markets.

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The Joburg Market (formerly known as the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market) was established in City Deep, a few kilometres outside the city’s CBD, in 1974. It is the biggest market in Africa. More than 5 000 farmers sell their produce to the public here, while about 10 000 buyers, retailers, wholesalers and hawkers make use of it. There are also several other major fresh produce markets in South Africa.

Despite this, it is no secret that one of the greatest challenges to smallholder farmers in South Africa remains access to markets. Year after year, conference after conference, farmers make resolutions to address the issue. Exactly what markets are they talking about?

This matter was raised by Motsepe Matlala, president of the newly reformed National African Farmers’ Union of South Africa (Nafu). Matlala asked me, rhetorically, what the South African smallholder farmers had achieved since the ANC took over in 1994, especially regarding access to finance and markets. There had simply been no breakthrough in addressing these issues. Why?

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Several reasons, I suspect. Firstly, the dismantling of tried-and-tested public instruments that had been used to support agriculture until the new government took over. Secondly, a lack of innovative thinking about how these were supposed to be replaced. Thirdly, a lack of policies governing private – including farmers’ – investment in agriculture.

Fresh solutions to an old problem
Matlala went on to say that these problems extended to access to markets. It was simply too difficult for new farmers to enter existing markets. The only solution he could see was to develop entirely new markets. And importantly, by doing so, new farmers could tailor them to suit their location and operations. What Matlala is saying makes sense. The existing fresh produce markets were established before 1994.

More than 90% of the hawkers in the Johannesburg area, including all the Johannesburg townships, source their produce from the Joburg Market. Soweto has apparently doubled in size since the establishment of the market almost forty years ago. And there are also new settlements such as Diepsloot.

Likewise, the Pretoria townships of Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa have more than doubled in size since the establishment of the Tshwane Fresh Produce Market. Smallholder farmers from the north of Pretoria pass through the townships to deliver their produce to the Tshwane Fresh Produce Market, only to have that produce return to the townships a few hours later, transported by hawkers and retailers.

What does this do to food prices?

According to Matlala, the price of food could be reduced by as much as 50% if markets were established in these areas.
I’m not sure about 50%, but I certainly believe that building markets where the customers are located makes obvious business sense, and would have a positive impact on food prices. Of course, establishing and running these markets is not as simple as it sounds. But innovative thinking like this is surely a good place to start.