Building agricultural capacity in Africa

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) plays a leading role in assisting governments to grow agricultural sectors and build a food secure foundation. Rosebud Kurwijila, FAO representative for South Africa, spoke to Lindi van Rooyen about skills shortages and uplifting small-scale farmers.

The FAO provides implements and inputs to rural communities as part of its mandate to alleviate hunger.
Photo: Courtesy of FAO

 What is the FAO’s role in South Africa?
The FAO is a global organisation with 197 member countries, of which South Africa is one. Our mandate is to reduce hunger in the world and so we work with government to give advice on policy and strategy issues affecting agriculture and food security. We also make recommendations for agricultural projects and give government technical assistance when required.

What agricultural projects are you engaged in?
We have numerous projects that are either field orientated or deal with policy and strategy issues. Our biggest project relates to capacity building of agricultural professionals in SA. This includes farmers and those who work in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

We started with training in 2007 and field courses include maize production, aquaculture, piggeries and irrigation projects. The farmers are taught everything from farming practices to bookkeeping and courses are adjusted according to needs. Some projects take a year to complete while others take up to five years.

We are also running smaller projects in rural communities, aimed at food security. For example, the Telefood Campaign, implemented in all the provinces, provides support to farmers for a year by giving them implements, inputs and skills and we continue to monitor food production after we pull out. So far we have helped two million people since 2009.

What is your approach to agricultural projects, considering that many fail once the mentorship programme ends and farmers are left to farm independently?
We focus on capacity building so that the farmer has a wide range of skills to run the farm once the FAO pulls out. The farmer has ownership of the farm by the time training is completed. This aspect is very important because when farmers see the farm as their own it leads to greater responsibility.At this stage we have no partnerships with commercial farmers and only work through government and other non-governmental organisations. We are, however, in discussion with government to make mentorship possible so that there is ongoing support when the FAO pulls out.

What needs to be done to ensure that small-scale farmers are sustainable and contribute to food security?
Technical know-how is by far the most important aspect to ensure that small-scale farmers succeed. This is why the FAO has specific projects to enable small-scale farmers to produce enough food to feed themselves and contribute to national food security. This is a big task because small-scale farmers are not really being supported in this regard. There are lots of farmers in the rural areas that need training and better knowledge of agricultural practices such as for example, preventing disease.

Is the decline of commercial farmers in SA a cause for concern with regards to food security?
No, because those that are producing are doing well and there are many small-scale farmers who are making a big contribution. DAFF has done a lot to help small-scale farmers and its Zero Hunger campaign is going a long way to ensure that these farmers are being equipped to produce food. Turning subsistence farmers into commercial small-scale farmers is one of the FAO’s aims, but it will take some time before we reach this goal. When we are done it is possible that they might even give the larger commercial farmers a run for their money.

What is the main issue facing African farmers?
The biggest obstacle facing farmers in Africa is access to markets. SA excluded, most of Africa does not have an adequate infrastructure and farmers are not assured of markets. Food production on its own does not matter if it is not available to the people. Political will also hinders agriculture as there is not enough concentration of investment in the sector. Very few of the governments in Africa are honouring their commitment (the Maputo Decleration) to spend 10% of their budgets on agriculture.

What is the biggest deterrent to food security in Africa?
Besides investment and access to markets, climate change is having a definite impact on food production. Climate change will affect Africa more than any other continent in the future. If production decreases as a result, then food security will become an issue.

Is farming in its current form sustainable in Africa?
Too many people in Africa are subsistence farmers and that is not sustainable. They have to be converted to small-scale farmers who have an element of commercialisation. This will ensure that they can produce food for themselves and make an income. Subsistence farming is outdated and shouldn’t be happening in this era, especially in Africa.

Contact Rosebud Kurwijila on [email protected]