‘Black farmers must be integrated more’

Njabulo Nduli, the director-general for agriculture, outlines the issues high on the department’s list of priorities and explains some of the difficulties faced by the sector, and the state’s solutions. Peter Mashala reports.
Issue date: 2-9 January 2009

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Njabulo Nduli, the director-general for agriculture, outlines the issues high on the department’s list of priorities and explains some of the difficulties faced by the sector, and the state’s solutions. Peter Mashala reports.

What are the main challenges facing agriculture?
Primarily it’s the drop in production, due to high inputs costs and global commodity prices. We’ve also had severe droughts and more recently, floods. Farmers have to make difficult decisions as to what to plant and where to market their produce. These challenges are discouraging investment in the sector.

What can be done to help emerging farmers?
Black farmers are not fully integrated into decision-making systems, which leaves them on the periphery. Part of the agricultural sector plan is to ensure greater participation and equity.
We have to ensure that farmers form part of the decision-making bodies. Only when they sit in the boardrooms will their voices be heard. They also need strong lobby groups to voice their needs.

But wasn’t the National African Farmers Union of South Africa the great hope for them?
Ideally it was and that is why I personally support the institutionalisation of organisations. At the moment we have the Women in Agriculture and Rural Development and the Youth in Agriculture and Rural Development organisations which were launched as the voices of emerging farmers.

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How can farmers and agriculture be supported by government?
We need to start talking about supporting farmers without being caught up in the debate of whether we should subsidise them or not. We should also engage other forms of support that have been agreed upon within the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Part of this means sufficient support for our public institutions like the Agricultural Research Council. The private sector will only come on board as partners once it sees government is heavily involved.

Agriculture is becoming increasingly technical so we need to start investing heavily in research technology. We need more engineers, scientists, specialists and vets. Government should support higher learning institutions to produce competent graduates. We also have to come up with further farmer development programmes and we have also been talking to banking institutions, who should support these programmes. Other forms of support would be to give farmers decent network channels so that by the time a farmer comes to a bank, the chances of failure have been reduced.

Has anything been done about increasing import tariffs to protect local farmers?
When the policies were set up by the International Trade Administration Commission where agriculture was represented, there was no lobbying from our side and the tariffs were just accepted. And there are policies within the WTO that restrict us from interfering with set tariffs. But we should start exploring other avenues like the distribution of value-added products like chicken, soya cake and dairy, without interfering with key products like grain which are traded on global markets. This could also improve our agricultural production strategy.

What happened to the strategic grain stockpiles Southern African Development Community (SADC) governments were considering setting up?
Member states were asked to explore the possibility of setting up grain reserves to boost regional food security. Within that context that the idea came up of having joint storage facilities for reserves and surpluses to be redistributed accordingly.
But several issues couldn’t be resolved to make this work. Who would own these facilities, who would manage them and who would buy from whom?

How can 30% of the land reform target be met if land transfers aren’t managed? For instance, we know of farms bought by the state for black farmers, who then sell them and make a tidy profit.
We need to tighten conditions and go back to scrutinising selection criteria. Policies are in line, but we’re concerned about the implementation. The question of capacity is also of concern in terms of implementing these policies.

The minister of agriculture said previously that the department will employ at least 1 000 extension officers in the current financial year. What is the progress on that?
The lack of capacity at provincial level has been hampering the execution of this recruitment plan. The provinces all received their allocations in January for the recruitment drive, but in April, when the department followed up, nothing had been done. I think they weren’t ready in terms of capacity.
Progress has also been stymied by bureaucracy in the department. The processes of valuation, job evaluation and allocation of systems take longer to be addressed by the provinces. I don’t think they anticipated the planning that would be required to execute this task.

Shouldn’t experienced commercial farmers be utilised to train emerging farmers?
We’re embarking on a new programme with Grain SA, where we will discuss how to transfer skills.
One of the ideas is to put up a rand for every rand these organisations invest. But yes, the department should involve commercial farmers to rehabilitate collapsed farms and irrigation schemes.

How would you describe your relationship with commercial farmers?
So far so good. My understanding is commercial farmers have their own challenges. Input costs have soared and they are concerned about markets and sector growth, as well as with some government policies like land redistribution. While the government is not apologetic and despite the issues between us, we’re looking at common challenges like the high food prices. We all have a common goal to be prosperous and to have a united agricultural sector.

What is the idea behind the “one-village-one product”?
The “one-village-one-product” initiative is one of the interventions that could reverse the trend of South Africa importing more than we export. The Japanese government established an initiative where each municipality identified a single agricultural product as their theme – either for tourism or in their key messages. Our wine industry has done well by promoting the cultivars unique to specific areas.
Simple indigenous crops that have never reached world markets could be fine-tuned and promoted to improve their value. The Bushbuckridge area in Mpumalanga for instance, is known for hazelnuts, so we could have chocolate coming directly from that area. We are still conceptualising this idea and have sent 10 women to Japan to observe the process. We have also started a bean project with women in the Eastern Cape in the village of Mbashe.

What was your thinking on agro-parks?
It’s a concept that we are working on whereby one raw product is processed into many different products – like taking fruit and then turning it into juice and jam – all in one area. It’s about producing locally and adding value locally. We are working with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) on these agro-parks and at the moment we’re targeting the Sekhukhune area in Limpopo where they grow tomatoes.
We want all the production processes to remain in the area. This is going to create jobs and will save money in terms of time and logistics.     |fw