Smallholders vital for Africa’s agribusiness growth

To achieve success in Africa as a primary producer or agribusiness, you must make yourself indispensable to the local community, according to Dr Jack Armour, Free State Agriculture operations manager.

He recently completed a trip across Zimbabwe, and the Zambezi region of Namibia and Botswana, and learnt about the link between small-scale commercial farming and the formal economy.

"I recently visited the Zambezi region (previously the Caprivi Strip) of Namibia and Chobe, Botswana. Everywhere, rivers were dry – only the Zambezi, Kwando and Limpopo were flowing.

Although indigenous cattle and goat breeds looked reasonably well-nourished despite the dry surrounds, it was clear from the appearance of dryland fields and crop patches that a long time had passed since decent rains had fallen.

The resilience of the people, however, was astounding. We met farmers in Zimbabwe, for example, who, despite the politics and pressure, are holding on. In fact, many of them are making themselves indispensable in their local communities.

In Bostwana, farmers were celebrating 50 years of independence, with the Botswana flag flying and the national colours painted everywhere. Perhaps South Africans need to follow the example of Kim Drummond of Drummond Ranching near Bulawayo.

“Zimbabweans are proud of themselves and their country and are willing to work hard. We’re a capable country and need to remember that nothing comes for free,” says Drummond, who also flies the national flag and has Proudly Zimbabwean painted on the signpost at his farm gate.

Farming with nature
One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Herman Fourie, an irrigation engineer by profession, who currently works for Foundations for Farming. This Christian-based organisation was started when the farm, which Brian Oldreive was managing in the north of Zimbabwe, was approaching bankruptcy.

Burning and deep soil inversion was common practice on the farm and caused terrible sheet erosion, resulting in loss of seed and water.

Increasing sums were spent on the machinery required for preparation of the lands, yet yields were declining. He began experimenting with zero-tillage using a simple hoe on 2ha. Within six years, minimum tillage was used on the entire 1 000ha farm, and in subsequent years, as a result of the profits generated, other farms were bought and he now oversees farming on 3 500ha.

Fourie currently works in the deep rural areas of northern Zimbabwe among subsistence farmers.

Foundations for Farming’s methods provide important tools to not just survive, but thrive with minimal outside input.

With the application of the foundation’s methods and principles, many rural farmers have moved from being destitute and hungry, to producing more than enough food for their families, keeping enough seed for the next season, and selling some of their crop to pay for their children’s school fees. A long-term commitment is vital to build trust and follow through on the training.

Ebenezer college
Meeting Peter Cunningham on his farm, Maleme, was another highlight of the trip. Cunningham is the founder of Ebenezer Agricultural Training College south of Bulawayo, and the visionary behind the Turning Matabeleland Green initiative.

The crux of the college’s three-year apprenticeship is “to see smallholders moving on to being businesspeople with a business mindset”, according to Boleslay Swawicki, Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) project manager. The objective of the fund is to train and connect smallholders with agribusinesses, and local and international markets.

Cunningham uses the analogy of many small cables wound together into the thick cables holding up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in the US, to depict the ideal relationship of smallholders, commercial farmers and agribusiness. All can farm together to bridge the gaps of land and social transformation, and food security.

“Seeing lives change, seeing communities change their production – starting to move [forward and up] – has to be one of the most exciting things we can do,” he says.

Making yourself indispensable
In the modern, global business environment, any agribusiness sourcing from smaller producers needs to be inclusive, empowering and transparent to create a win-win relationship. This is evident in Zimbabwe from the fact that the local community lobbied against the government takeover of Maleme farm a few years ago.

In 2007, a portion of the farm was set aside to house Ebenezer College, which trains young people in agricultural production and business skills based on Christian principles. In the first six months of 2014, for example, the 75 young apprentices at Ebenezer College produced 529t of vegetables and 82t of poultry. As it is their own agribusiness, students earn a profit after production costs.

Sustainable agribusinesses
Key to profitable, sustainable agribusiness in Africa is for strong businesses to enrol rural farmers into their supply chains, offering agri-training and secure markets.

Partnerships such as these often attract the attention of development funds such as the AECF, which chose Sondelani Ranching, a tomato, chicken and maize agribusiness, to be the beneficiary of a US$750 000 (about R10,8 million) grant and interest-free loan.

This funding is the result of Cunningham’s commitment to developing young Zimbabwean farmers and drawing them from life in the cities back to the land. It is a strategy he believes is fundamental to true economic and social development. Maleme farm currently supplies over 50% of Matabeleland’s layer birds to small- scale farmers. The Maleme team works closely with the local community.

In South Africa, approximately 2 000 agriculture students study through Unisa every year, and desperately seek opportunities for internships to complete their theoretical training. However, South Africa’s labour legislation make farmers highly reluctant to take on interns.

The country is sitting on a youth unemployment time-bomb and desperately needs initiatives in which willing farmers and government come together to forge a solution for the future of these young people.

Including smallholders in value chains
During the record hyper-inflation years in Zimbabwe, supermarket shelves were empty, and the vast majority of Zimbabweans had to resort to growing their own food and bartering for goods.

“Whites think blacks can’t farm – they are wrong! We desperately need young black men and women to know that they can farm and that there are some white people who can and will help them,” Cunningham comments.

He changed my vision on African farming by saying: “These are not poor people on a poor continent. They are rich people on a rich continent! We need to include them in our businesses and put them into our value chains.”

I realised on this trip that one of the factors that would ensure the success of farming in Southern Africa would be to recognise that smallholders play a vital role in food and fibre production. We need to correctly train and integrate them into the market to empower them, and support and live in trust with our smallholder neighbours. Interaction with them needs to be transparent to dispel any notion of exploitation.

It is our God-given call and purpose to faithfully steward the land and resources entrusted to us, despite ever-pending political, safety and market threats, as well as the onslaught of natural elements. To succeed in Southern Africa as a primary producer or agribusiness, you have to have faith and make yourself indispensable to the local community."

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

For more information, phone Dr Jack Armour on 051 444 4609, or email [email protected].