Corporates should drive new agrarian revolution

With the need for food security and sustainable livelihoods among the rural poor, the time is ripe for a new agrarian revolution. Some businesses are already acting on the opportunity, honing a model that could change the lives of millions, turning subsistence agriculture into viable commerical enterprises. Andile Ncontsa, head of the Old Mutual Foundation talks about the foundations sponsorship of and partnership with Organic Farms Group.
Issue date : 01 August 2008

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The global crisis in food prices has made enough headlines, and its severity doesn’t need to be detailed. We need only point out that global maize and wheat prices have soared up to 80% in the last year, and the price of rice has doubled. The global impact of this is acknowledged, as is the fact that the poor are being hit hardest, particularly in Africa.

But SA has an opportunity to present solutions that can be scaled up across the continent, as well as to provide its own rural poor with the choice of livelihoods and dignity. F inance minister Trevor Manuel recently urged to grow food on all arable land. World Bank president Robert Zoellick has also expressed alarm over food security and Prof Jeffrey D Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US, suggests the crisis could be a catalyst for what he terms an “African green revolution”.

In the May edition of Scientific American, Prof Sachs urges that food aid to Africa be replaced by interventions that he believes could at least triple Africa’s yield of grain. H e urges for four kinds of temporary help: financing for better farm inputs, extension services to advise farmers on new technology, community nurseries to diversify production, and investments in infrastructure. S achs adds that climate change drives home the urgency of the crisis and warns that “soaring world food prices have put a crippling burden on Africa as a net food importer” and that this is where the disaster lies.

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Among developing nations, lessons from Brazil and India prove that with the correct support mechanisms, the poor can leapfrog subsistence farming and venture straight into commercial agriculture. Old Mutual teams with OFG The Old Mutual Foundation’s support of the Organic Farms Group (OFG) presents a practical, pragmatic and scalable model of how business can help affect this new agrarian green revolution. n Cape Town alone, more than 1 000 residents of poverty-stricken areas of Delft can now earn a living selling fresh produce to supermarkets across the city. In Waterloo outside Umhlanga, members of a youth project have shown great resilience and commitment to beating poverty through organic farming.

Far more than merely teaching people to grow vegetables, this project enables those with aspirations to move from tilling into entrepreneurship, from subsistence to commercial enterprises and from self-pity to human dignity. Similar success has been enjoyed in four provinces and the expansion continues. Crucial lessons for turning agriculture into a viable commercial enterprise for millions of South Africans mired in a hard-scrabble of existence are emerging: firstly, teaching people subsistence farming through food gardens is not sustainable, although it is making the poor less poor and delaying the inevitable inheritance of poverty by the next generation.

Secondly, you are not empowering people if you limit them to a single skill. Commercial agriculture in the 21st century is competitive, cut-throat and complex. Thirdly, in agriculture, as in most endeavours, size matters! Do not believe anyone who tells you otherwise! or these reasons, OFG has developed and tested a flexible implementation model with four facets raised by the World Bank, namely: training; infrastructure development; support and marketing.

To overcome the constraint of size, empowers small-scale farmers by grouping them into a cluster that has a nursery, growing land, packhouse or refrigerated container, and provides distribution logistics and access to major retail outlets. The formula works like a wheel with its hub and spokes in a radius of about 100km. A training farm and support group is established at the hub and expands outwards to satellite farms. This type of intervention drives capacity-building, skills development and education to the poor, and promotes the wellbeing of the rural poor – especially women, who hold the social structure together.

According to Sifiso Myeni, OFG cooperative development executive, OFG has adopted a bold plan to be unfolded throughout every province. In Gauteng, for example, the Gauteng Economic Development Agency, together with the key cities of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, are launching a provincial initiative through the OFG. The City of Johannesburg alone has committed R3,9 million to make land and infrastructure available for organic food production. Meeting the challenges As evidenced by recent riots in countries such as Senegal and Haiti, food security is a national imperative that requires focused attention, cooperative action and high level leadership action in government, civil society and the private sector.

Our challenge is not to change the lives of a few thousand for the better, but the lives of millions, and not only to address poverty, but also the inequality which goes with it. So far, the biggest beneficiaries of post-apartheid SA are the rich (black and white), who have become even richer. We have far too many poor people in a country meant to be “alive with possibility”. It’s not alarmist, therefore, to call this situation a crisis. At the World Economic Forum in 2002 former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan said, “There are many positive ways for business to make a difference in the lives of the poor – not through philanthropy but though initiatives that, over time, will help build new markets.”

This statement remains true and unfulfilled. I speak on behalf of Old Mutual and other corporates who are doing outstanding work in this regard, like Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite Checkers and other food retailers who are making a contribution by sourcing food from local communities. The flipside of crisis is opportunity. As a savings and investment champion, Old Mutual is engaging the food security issue and welcomes partnerships that help meet this challenge.

Collective action by business and key roleplayers in designing and implementing effective anti-poverty strategies can no longer be optional if we are to work seriously to halve poverty by 2014. We should aim to meet more than the minimum target, and to create markets and services. The market of the rich is small – there are more opportunities to supply the 4 billion people in the world who are languishing at the bottom of the curve.We must confront poverty and we must confront it now. – Robyn Joubert |fw ‘ The market of the rich is small while 4 billion people languish at the bottom of the curve.’