Fiddling while Rome burns?

In her speech at the AGM of the African Farmers Association of South Africa, agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson spoke glowingly of the Walmart initiative to support small-scale farmers.

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The SA project is going to cost around R40 million and certainly sounds impressive. I doubt if anybody would argue about the need for such an investment in the farmers of our country. Now, when you ask market people who their main competitors are, they’ll tell you it’s the big retailers who buy directly from the farmers. It’s been happening for as long as I can remember and seems to increase steadily as the years go by.

Marketing markets
But in her speech, the minister uttered not one word about fresh produce markets. It seems as if she doesn’t even know of their existence. And if she does, she clearly has no clue of the important role they play in this country’s fresh produce distribution network. Then again, have the markets done anything to… well, market themselves? Not really. Market agents hardly fare any better. I know of only one agency in the whole country that’s reached out to small-scale farmers.

No wonder Walmart and others are garnering farmer support while the markets whinge and wail about what the competition is doing to them. I’ve never encountered a more appropriate example of that old chestnut, ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. Despite their shortcomings, the markets remain a very important link in the fresh produce supply chain. The tragedy is that the minister doesn’t seem to appreciate this.

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Meaningful option
What must markets do to not only attract the minister’s attention, but get her to publicly support them and – dare I say it – promote them as a meaningful option for small-scale farmers? What Joemat-Pettersson doesn’t seem to understand is that if our system of markets falls away – and there are those who would welcome that – the very farmers she’s supposedly supporting will be the biggest losers, followed closely by the country as a whole.

Contact Mike Cordes at [email protected]. Please state ‘Market floor’ in the subject line of your email.