SA farmers are ‘agropreneurs’

Local farmers seek to create sustainable business ventures out of agro-commodities, goods and services with other role players in the value chain. They are not mere landowners, according to Christo van der Rheede, deputy executive director at Agri SA.

SA farmers are ‘agropreneurs’
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The first farmer in our family was my grandfather, Herman Engel, the owner of the farm Sondagskloof near Elim. I vividly remember my mother recounting all the obstacles he faced while farming, but how he eventually prospered due to his entrepreneurial spirit and social consciousness. He became a successful farmer and owner of the local retail establishment later. In collaboration with the Moravian missionary church, he also established a church, shop and school on the farm.

He understood the critical importance of unlocking production factors such as capital, labour and resources such as land in order to be an active participant in the local economic value chain. The more exciting part is that he also established himself as a beneficiary of the wealth chain.

In the 1930s, with other farmers, he started exporting Wit Sewejaartjies, an indigenous Fynbos specimen, to Germany and Holland. My mother’s eldest sister also started a wreath business and produced beautiful wreaths with the Wit Sewejaartjies.
My grandfather continued to diversify his business interests and later took ownership of the big missionary store on Elim.

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This formed the economic hub of the local community as it provided a wide variety of goods such as groceries, gasoline and apparel. Many people and farmers from outlying areas also frequented the missionary store to stock-up their weekly supplies. During December and January, he also made tents for camp-goers at sites near Gansbaai and Hermanus.

Starting off as a farmer who eventually grew into a fully-fledged agropreneur as he expanded and diversified his business interests, he and others breathed life into the local economy. His cousin who owned the butchery turned meat into delicious by-products such as salami.

Local communities such as Elim and surrounding areas who were far from the bigger cities thus had to rely on expertise in their midst to process various raw products. The local mill was used to grind grain into flour while the blacksmith produced various products from iron. Self-reliance, interdependence, skills transfer from the German missionaries mixed with a healthy dose of hard work and frugality contributed greatly to the economic success of the local entrepreneurs and local populace.

And as the value chain expanded, the wealth chain grew. My grandfather later acquired Rembrandt shares, listed on the JSE in 1956. Many jobs which lifted the community out of poverty and illiteracy were also created. The church, school and other facilities on the farm Sondagskloof and on Elim played a critical role in educating generations.

Most important was the wealth left behind to the family. This enabled us, as grandchildren, to continue our studies and become professionals in an array of fields. This legacy still continues up to today, benefiting the third and fourth generations indirectly. Some of them recently qualified as lawyers, psychologists, educators, professional musicians, doctors, etc.

Without the dedication and leadership of my grandfather and others to pursue their dreams of economic self-reliance and community development amidst the challenges, their appetite to risk capital, their innovativeness and ability to transform economic resources into consumer products and services as well as employing and developing labour, the achievements mentioned would have been a mere pipe dream.

What is also critical to mention, is the high levels of social consciousness, collaborative leadership and interdependence that underpinned an holistic approach in satisfying the economic needs of the community. This enabled local business people to continuously expand the local value chain and to build long-term value not only for themselves, but also for the community.

Adding value
My grandfather approached farming holistically as an intelligent investor and savvy businessman. It was about creating and exploring opportunities and adding value to various end products to maximise their full commercial potential. Growing his stake in the value as well as the wealth chain not only made him a wealthy man, but helped to improve the living standards of the broader community.

This penny has unfortunately not yet dropped within the broader post-democratic South African context. It is entrepreneurs or, within the agricultural context, agropreneurs, that bring about economic activity. Many are highly successful, others less successful.

However, South Africa sadly has an ambivalent relationship with not only its own cadre of entrepreneurs, but also with entrepreneurs abroad. For it to truly rise above the economic doldrums it currently faces, it must prioritise entrepreneurs and more specifically, agropreneurs. These are the people who provide the heartbeat to a business entity.

Given the low economic growth rate, the challenges faced by the mining and manufacturing sectors and the gloomy job-shedding outlook, agriculture and agro-processing remain an important wealth- and job creation-sector. However, there should be a collective effort and collaborative leadership to turn around the trivial perceptions that a farmer is a mere landowner.

That should be turned into a common understanding that a farmer is in fact an agropreneur who not only provides food, but also seeks to create sustainable business ventures out of agro-commodities, goods and services in collaboration with other players in the value chain.

Today our economies are far more advanced and globalised. Once vibrant rural economies no longer depend on local skills to process and manufacture things. Processed foods and manufactured goods are produced in big factories with advanced technologies and available over the shopping counter. The local populace of Elim are mere consumers of mostly cheap imported goods.

Long gone are the days of local people processing raw materials and producing products. Goods from around the world are now being imported and less and less South African-produced products are exported. Cheaper imports, though, negatively impacted on the competitiveness and sustainability of various industrial sectors resulting in downsizing, even closing of factories and more people without jobs.

All of this is having an adverse effect on the value and wealth chain. As local value chains shrink, fewer local business opportunities will be available. This will result in less local production, more job-shedding and increased dependence on imports. The scarier part is the decline in people who benefit from the wealth chain as a result of their inability to save, buy investment products, acquire assets and earn a stable and decent income.

The efforts by government to build an inclusive economy has resulted in more and more red tape and legislation imposed on local entrepreneurs. This is pushing up the cost of doing business and also causing uncertainty. It seems South Africa is trapped in a downward spiral of economic decay, conflict and inaction between the state and private sector. This has resulted in ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.

Reversing many of these challenges is not impossible. However, it will require ‘new’ thinking. No, it will require ‘old’ thinking premised on the economic principles that underpinned growth in the value chain as well as growth in the wealth chain during my grandfather’s time. That is an holistic approach to local economic development, self-reliance, innovation aimed at exploring opportunities in the value chain, higher and quality productivity, collaborative leadership and social consciousness.

More importantly, however, is the principle of interdependence between all the role players involved in the value chain as well as government institutions. Economic growth and people growth is possible if the principle of interdependence is entrenched in a shared vision aimed at growing the South African economy and its entire people.

Shared Vision

The realisation of a shared vision must be based on a systematic and integrated approach seeking to strengthen the principle of interdependence. This will help us move beyond self-interest to greater levels of economic organisation, cooperation, innovation, networking and empowerment. These are necessary prerequisites to embed rule of law, private ownership, service delivery, competitiveness and sustainability at all levels of society.

Collaborative leadership committed to bring about a shared vision for expanding the value chain, unlocking opportunities and enabling people to benefit from the wealth chain is required. In this regard, agropreneurs have a critical and proactive role as change agents to play as they know better than anyone else conditions at grassroots level and how to deal with the development gap. Building a competitive and sustainable economy is, after all, a bottom-up process.

The Wit Sewejaartjie only appears every seven years after a severe fire. It is also poisonous for livestock. However, it did not scare my grandfather and others to exploit its commercial value by harvesting and processing it for the export market. Perhaps growth opportunities for agriculture and agro-processing do not lie in the obscure, but rather in the obvious.

Phone Christo van der Rheede on 012 643 3400 or email
[email protected].