Transkei maize no easy task

In 2007 the Eastern Cape government established Asgisa Eastern Cape Pty Ltd to get rural development in the province off the ground. The main focus being large-scale maize production in the former Transkei. Now, after their first harvest, Mike Burgess asked Asgisa Eastern Cape CEO Simpiwe Somdyala how the project has fared, and discovers that it often tends to be a mixed bag of success.

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What does Asgisa wish to achieve in the Eastern Cape?
It’s time to make a difference in our focus areas, by facilitating and fast-tracking development through various partnerships.
Those areas are not just agriculture, but also for example forestry and water resources. Currently we’re involved in five district municipalities – Alfred Nzo, OR Tambo, Amathole, Ukhahlamba and Chris Hani.

Scale is important, as is looking at the projects’ commercial sustainability. We sign agreements with communities to confirm that the project is theirs and that we’re facilitating it. Whatever happens, we want to recover costs of production when we sell. That’s the bottom line.

Also, whatever you do, there must be a focus on food security. Depending on yields, a portion of maize goes to the community, either in the form of bags or as a percentage. Profits are reinvested to expand. Communities on the ground, traditional leadership and municipal officials mean well and really do want this thing to happen. I tell anybody who says there’s no land that I have seen it.
The challenges are fencing, access and getting the land fertile. Other organisations and institutions are willing to fund projects, but we are aware of the risks – facilitation and the time it takes. Once we grapple with that you’ll see investment, including private-sector investment.

Asgisa Eastern Cape has defined its involvement in, especially, the eastern parts of the province through large-scale maize production. What is the potential of maize production in the former Transkei, and what has already been achieved?

Everywhere we’ve been they’ll tell you they want maize. There are over 1 million hectares, but realistically there’s potential for 500 000ha of arable land. Originally our targets were that within five years we’d facilitate the planting and production of 100 000ha. Last season the target was 5 000ha and we planted 6 500ha in partnership with municipalities – this year we’re planting 12 000ha.

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In some areas last year the yield was around 6,5t/ha in the Ongeluksnek area, and on some farms up to 7t/ha and 8t/ha. Then in some areas there were no fences, and yields dropped to between 0,5t/ha and 0,6t/ha. Our average yield was around 3t/ha. But I’d say even 0,5t/ha was a good start, because before that there was nothing.

Can too much community consultation and involvement hamper production efficiency?

It’s extremely frustrating. Often farmers in a village are very keen to get involved in projects. For us, these are the most important people. But to strike a deal, there are 20 other people you must talk to. If it was a typical farmer it would be you, him and the title deed, and the project would be finished on time.

We are not providing a good service to the poor, because there are so many “gatekeepers” who must be consulted. My problem is with the people who purport to represent the poor, when it’s their interests in the forefront. I think we as a government sometimes fall into the trap of overconsultation. I’m not saying it’s wrong – it’s important, but we do more than we need to. That’s why I’m excited by President Zuma’s words that this is the time to do things, not talk about them.

Will preparing old abandoned land in the former Transkei be expensive? How important are efficient contract mechanisation teams in establishing maize there?

Because the land hasn’t been used for a long time it’s extremely expensive to rehabilitate, due to erosion, degradation, lack of soil-conservation practices and land-use practices. Most lands haven’t been planted in 15 or 20 years and the costs are more than double your normal commercial production costs, between R8 000/ha, and in some cases up to R12 000/ha. This is just production costs, not farm roads or fencing. To make it happen you need a contractor who understands the business – who must empower.

Are there plans to develop infrastructure further down the value chain, specifically in terms of agroprocessing?

We don’t have silos or storage facilities. You harvest and deliver maize to the buyer on the same day and have to take the price you get. When the average Safex price was running at R1 300/t, we were getting R1 100/t, because without storage we don’t have leverage. We need silos, so we’ve already started that process, commissioning a study. We also want to mill locally, because part of the problem is that the money doesn’t circulate locally.

Are there plans to capture and use the Eastern Cape’s significant annual runoff water, specifically in the eastern parts such as the Mzimvubu catchment area?

We’re finalising a study together with Department of Water and Environmental and Affairs (DWEA), which indicates that there are 19 different sites for dams in the Mzimvubu catchment area. This has been reduced to three. We’re looking at what will make sense and government will insist on a developmental agenda. You need to find a way to make the dam sustainable.

What other significant initiatives is Asgisa Eastern Cape currently involved in?
There’s an extremely exciting project in the Elliot region where we are catering for about 86 farmers on land that was mostly received through the LRAD programme, with a focus on meat production. The first phase is to get the guys to own the right stock. To date we’ve bought about 1 300 large stock units for about 40 farmers. It’s an interesting model as it’s not a grant – its not free, they must pay it back.

The Eastern Cape, particularly the eastern parts, have huge potential for rural forestation. A study has been done to identify areas. We’re currently looking at getting production on 5 000ha, with a target of 100 000ha.