Issue 1 Member Space Articles;
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For every South African, surviving the coronavirus is only agenda item in the short run. The COVID 19 virus is affecting each and every part of our society from health, education, social and economy systems, thus threatening all livelihoods. Within the agricultural fraternity, there is a growing uncertainty about how the structure of the sector will look like once the COVID 19 crisis has passed and whether distribution of food will remain normal. South Africa is a net exporter of agricultural products; however, about 14.8 million people go to bed hungry on daily basis, which weakens their immune system to cope with coronavirus. The crisis has placed the importance of saving of human lives at the centre of high decision making in the country. Farmers and farm workers who produce food have received essential recognition status similar to that of health practitioners, indicating a renewed interest in the sustainability and inclusivity of food production, processing and distribution in the country.
Agriculture at tipping point prior to COVID crisis
It is worth noting that South Africa’s agricultural sector was already constrained prior to the outbreak of the virus due to a series of droughts, low inclusivity caused by high barriers to entry, biosecurity issues, rising input costs induced by the weakening local currency, and deteriorating market, processing and research infrastructure, amongst other aspects. Due to these factors, the long-term (last thirteen years) growth rate in agriculture averaged 1.7% per annum compared to 2.3% in the overall economy. The medium term (last five years) growth rate in agriculture averaged -1.3% per annum which is lower than the 0.8% per annum achieved by the overall economy. This suggest that agriculture was somewhat at the tipping point even before the COVID 19 crisis happened. The level of imports for poultry, sugar and other products were increasing constraining the ability of local producers to expand and supply local demand.
COVID impact on agriculture
The South African agricultural and food sector is unlikely to be as hard hit by COVID-19 shutdown as compared to other sectors of the economy. This is mainly because the food industry is allowed to continue with operations with the exception of wool, mohair and cotton. Wine exports were initially banned but persuasive engagements led to an uplifting of wine export ban on 14 April. In the short term, it safe to say the domestic food supply is secure, at least, for the next 12 months. However, essential imported products such as wheat, rice, palm oil and poultry have relatively large global stock availability, they may be affected when the global shutdown continues for long. The global lockdown could impact logistics and results to key trading partners instituting export ban on the aforementioned products. South Africa is 100% dependent on imported rice and palm oil; 50% dependent on imported wheat, and to a lesser extent on poultry and oilcakes.
Thinking through the crisis to re-imagine a new equilibrium
To re-imagine a new agricultural equilibrium, one needs to understand how agricultural labour market, trade flows, technology and innovation will be impacted post the COVID crisis. The South African lockdown has effectively choked off the mobility of informal labour force leading to widespread loses of jobs and incomes for the poor. Fruit industry, highest job creator within agriculture, relies on availability of seasonal workers for harvesting, pruning and canopy management of orchards and vineyards. Conditional on how quickly health authorities find the vaccine to coronavirus, the availability of labour could be a challenge in the coming months. The long-term impact would be a shift towards technology adoption, where farmers replace humans with machines on farms. About 10 to 15 years ago, it was inconceivable to replace humans with machines to pick fruits because of sensitivity of fruits and their susceptibility to mechanical damages. Humans were the only option to ensure fruits’ compliance to minimal handling and damages standards in order preserve appearance for consumers. However, technology evolution and artificial intelligence has made it possible to create machines that are able to learn on their own how to pick, grade and pack fruits, the delicate activities that were traditional reserved for humans.
The players in the sector has become accustomed to free-trade and relatively protected information over the past two decades. The witnessed prioritization of saving human lives over profits will inspire the rationale of fair trade over free trade conducts. Regulations will increasingly force traders to first satisfy the domestic demand before generating foreign earnings through exports. Moreover, the consumers post COVID 19 lockdown will minimize their travelling and physical interaction, which could impact the traditional purchasing of food. Virtual markets and factory to household distribution of food could significantly increase in the medium term. Lastly, the availability of funding could favour farmers and agribusinesses that produce food items deemed critical for food security in the country. This include grain, oilseeds, vegetables and animal products that form part of the typical food nutritional basket.
Reforms required to achieve new equilibrium
In the short-term reform needed are those that save farmers, agribusiness, and jobs thus sustaining the access, availability and affordability of food to all South Africans. In the medium to long term, is to forge inclusive partnerships to develop underutilized land for production growth, revitalize irrigation schemes, assist farmers with affordable capital and invest on research and technology development. After taking all relevant facts into account, the writers of the 1995 White Paper on Agriculture envisioned a sector that is highly efficient, economically viable, and market-directed, characterized by a wide range of farm sizes and types. To date, most reforms proposed by the White Paper have not been implemented and they remain critical to achieve a new equilibrium in the agricultural sector post COVID 19 crisis.
As far as I can remember from my days as an undergraduate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), all I thought about was finding a good job at the department of agriculture after graduation. I wanted to help improve the livelihood of the rural women as a practitioner. However, my experiences have led me to want more, I want to be both a practitioner and a researcher. Here are some of the top 2 experiences that have led me to think this.
“Academics live in their own heads and have no idea of what’s happening on the ground”. A common phrase I heard from my peers as an undergrad. When I did my internship in the department of agriculture, I was not surprised when I found that there were quite a number of practitioners that also held the same belief. At the same time, I found it interesting that the very same practitioners that boast about having knowledge on what happens on the ground never create or publish their knowledge. This gap is what sparked my interest to want close this gap by equipping myself with strong research skills so that when I acquire knowledge from practice, I would have the capacity to share that knowledge with the world.
This journey led me to do a masters by research at UKZN and got myself a pass with distinction in 2017. In 2018, my masters thesis won second prize in AEASA conference and in the same year one of my two papers got published in the African Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. This just gave me a boost that as a young person that grew up in the township, I am capable. However, I still had doubts about myself in terms of how I would fare in the international arena as I had never been outside of KZN. Luckily for me, in 2018 I got a scholarship to study an MSc in Cooperatives, Agri-food and Sustainable Development (1 year) at the Cork University Business School in Ireland. This was a perfect course for me because it had a 5 month placement component to it, which allowed me to work for the German Development Cooperation (GIZ). This was in line with my goal to balance research and practice. I also got a chance to do research in Ghana and visited Rwanda. In 2019, my practice-based research linking women empowerment and mechanization (“womechanization”) was presented in a conference organized by Development Studies Association Ireland (DSAI) on the theme, “Gendering Development: Research to Policy and Practice”. The conference was attended by many international development organization practitioners from Concern Worldwide, GOAL, Christian Aid, Plan International, Trocaire and Irish Aid etc.
As Steve Jobs said, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards”. Based on my experience, researchers/academics have the responsibility to get out of their comfort zones and have practical element to their research that is not always directed to government. It seems to me that research in collaboration with local organizations is the way to go in order to close the gap that currently exists between researchers and practitioners.