Finding realistic ways to boost Southern Africa’s agri output

More than 30 million people in Southern Africa do not have access to enough food. The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (Stias) is examining ways in which agricultural production can be increased in a sustainable way. Stias fellow Dr Janos Bogardi talks to Glenneis Kriel.

Finding realistic ways to boost Southern Africa’s agri output
Dr Janos Bogardi
Photo: FW Archive

The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (Stias) recently hosted a round table discussion entitled ‘Strategic direction for agricultural transformation in Southern Africa’. What is the goal of the programme?
It’s to get prominent agricultural role players together to share their vision on how agricultural production can be transformed in the context of major societal changes, such as urbanisation, the growing middle class, and new opportunities for livelihood generation on- and off-farm.

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Discussions will touch on how policies, markets, science and technology, infrastructure, land-use patterns, production systems and private sector participation should be changed to improve production output without having a negative impact on the environment or society.The discussion forms part of a broader research theme – ‘Sustainable intensification of agriculture in Southern Africa’ – which Stias will promote over the next three to five years with the support of the Wallenberg Foundation.

How do you define sustainable transformation?
Agricultural transformation is about the intensification of agriculture – in other words, the production of more food – in an environmentally and social responsible way. Landscape has to be used efficiently. For sustainable production to take place, soils, climate, topography, location to market, available water and electricity have to be studied and matched with the best suitable agricultural production system and a capable producer. Farming requires a definite skill level to ensure that resources are used efficiently.

A mismatch would be unsustainable, because the producer won’t make money and the operation won’t contribute to the greater economy of the region. In the long run, this type of operation will be wiped out by market forces or through the exhaustion of natural resources. Nevertheless, it’s not enough for farms to be sustainable geo-physically or biologically. They should also be sustainable on a social level by conforming to societal expectations and standards.

In the context of South Africa, for example, this might imply that more capable black farmers are needed for socio-political reasons. Because South Africa has high unemployment levels, it could also mean that production output has to be increased in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on employment.

It doesn’t help to implement projects that are decades ahead of their time in the way they increase production – say through mechanisation or automation – but society is not ready for this change. Agricultural is more like a cruise ship than a sports car. Changes in general takes time.

What has to be considered for successful transformation?
Transformation is context- specific, historically, landscape and crop-wise. In Hungary, where I come from, they experimented with collectivisation of agriculture after the Second World War. But even in the reddest communist time, wine vineyards were not entirely collectivised because it’s a crop that requires a lot of care and skill. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model.

Do you see socialism as a potential model for Southern Africa?
A successful model will be able to link agricultural transformation with the social norms of a society. I would say that the cooperative system is a model, providing it is based on voluntary participation and people retain a feeling of ownership. This is in the social context of the hunger for land-ownership in Africa.

It should also be considered that farmland is more than simply a tool to make money. In many communities it’s seen as both a lifestyle and a livelihood. In Europe, for example, some farmers lease land while others make an income from letting land, so you don’t have to own the land or work it to make money from it. Some farmers work in other jobs to keep their farms going. Nothing wrong with that.

How do you see the future of agriculture?
I expect farms to become larger because of economies of scale, not only on the farm, but also higher up the value chain. This trend is visible in most countries. The size will depend on what is being produced and where the farm is located. High-value crops, such as fruit, vegetables and medicinal plants can, for example, be produced on a smaller production unit than livestock or staples. But as I’ve said before, there are quite a few weekend farmers who subsidise production through other sources of income.

Is there room for subsistence farmers in sustainable production?
Subsistence farming basically deprives people from taking part in a developing society and often results in a vicious debt cycle. Farmers only grow enough food to feed their family and in effect are unable to move themselves or their children forward. The result is that farmers’ vulnerability is carried over to future generations.

However, in a society where there are no other employment options, subsistence farming is still better than nothing. To address this issue, ways should be found in which these farmers can become more sustainable, perhaps by supplying them with seed, helping them to increase production and linking them to markets.

Where does academia fit into all this?
We need a more holistic approach to address challenges in the agricultural industry. Speak to an economist, botanist, soil scientist, pesticide expert or plant breeder and each one of them will hold a different idea on how to fix a problem. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong, because you cannot fight this war on one front only – it is a multi-dimensional problem.

The role of agriculture, for example, is greatly undervalued. Most economists focus only on the sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product – approximately 2% in South Africa – and not at the multiplier effect that it has on other industries, or its role in society.

Looking at secondary agricultural production, the contribution of the farming sector in South Africa is about 25%. Agriculture is the foundation of everything – without it we won’t have any more development. Another problem is the way in which agricultural students have become disconnected from farming. In America, for example, students are increasingly focusing on molecular sciences and genetics. In some cases, these students have never even been on a farm to put the context of their studies into perspective.

For research and knowledge to become meaningful, academics and agricultural professionals have to start sharing knowledge across disciplines and discuss ways in which that knowledge can be applied to provide the best results.

Email Prof Janos Bogardi at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 27 March 2015 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.