One On One

Q & A – Dr Vuyo Mahlatsi

The African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA) this week launched its transformation barometer, a special tool to measure the state of transformation in the country’s agriculture sector. The new tool which was kick-started during the organisation’s annual Agri-business Transformation Conference in Bloemfontein is expected to help inform government and business on the steps required to accelerate change and ensure more black farmers actively participate. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked AFASA President Dr Vuyo Mahlatsi for an over of the conference and how the transformation barometer was expected to bring change. Makoni also asked Mahlati about some of the high potential sectors which farmers could consider in agriculture and the support available for production and access to markets. Excerpts:

How would you describe the outcome of the third AFASA Agri-business Transformation Conference, did you achieve your set goals?

Absolutely. The conference had a special focus on job creation and trade promotion. So, the bigger issue around it, in terms of objectives, was to showcase the capabilities of black farmers in terms of what they produce and their contribution to the economy. The conference presented a commodity plan for the next 10 years. The commodities we were looking at include grains, livestock, wildlife, poultry and other crops. The idea behind that was mainly to align land reforms with commodity growth because we believe that the growth, from an agri-sector perspective, has to be through a commodity approach. So, what we did was to list the commodities found in different areas and analyse their growth patterns as well as the opportunities that exist. We also looked at the challenges presented by droughts and climate change. We got quite a comprehensive picture of the situation and this will allow us to plan for the future.

What are some of key achievements that you can point to from this conference?

The conference allowed us as black farmers to check how much the industry has transformed. Our approach focuses mainly on the policies and on the implementation. This however is not only limited to the public sector in terms of government, we focus on the private sector as well. We look at each and every commodity and each and every province in terms of the extent of transformation of the industry. Of particular importance is ensuring that new entrants are being enabled by the ecosystem to grow as well as accessing the markets and finance. Quite often people tell us they support transformation and they show us a few black faces. We are not talking social responsibility. We are talking about transformation that is sustainable and ensuring the viability of the farmers. We have a programme for the youth, we have a programme for women. These are programmes are aimed at ensuring that we address the issue patriarchy from a land ownership perspective, we address the issue of race as well as the issue of spacial inequality. But gender equality to us, is central to that.

How do you plan to utilise the information gathered at the conference to improve the situation of black farmers?

The beauty about the information that we have now is that we can now link that with an area-based approach in terms of a district or a given area and then align that with production. That alignment prepares us to be more systematic in supporting the farmers.

The conference also saw the launch of the transformation barometer, what is it and how is it expected to work?

This is a very important tool to help us determine the progress of transformation in the agricultural sector. Of particular importance is the involvement of black farmers in the sector and the availability of land. We need to be very clear about what we are measuring and this barometer is an ideal instrument for that. We had quite some robust engagement on this by the different stakeholders at the conference. We were not just gathered there to complain that government is not doing this or that. We were focusing the conversation on what could be done to improve the situation. So, out of that dialogue, we came out with clarity on the challenges and as well as a clear vision on how we move forward.

How effective will the transformation barometer be compared to other mechanisms used before?

It is essentially a tool to measure progress in the agricultural sector across the value chain. It’s important to note that this is not just a tool to determine who is not transforming. It’s a tool to assist with policy reforms, training and financing, among others. It’s looking at what’s happening in the sector on a wider scale and how to improve it. For example, about 84.7 percent of the land in the Eastern Cape is grazing land, so the issue is, how is government transforming to ensure that land is used more effectively. We also look at who are the players? How transformed are they across the value chain and we also include the auctioneers. We want to know why black farmers are struggling to get a good price for land. This could mean we need to train more black auctioneers as well. We then look at the best practices out there, who is doing the right thing that we need to emulate?

Emerging farmers usually struggle to identify the ideal crops for their respective areas what are some of the crops they could consider for potentially good returns?

We recently started working with DIAGEO to promote growing sorghum. We are pushing mixed cropping because of the ever changing climatic conditions. Farmers can no longer rely on one thing. We are experiencing droughts a bit too often now. You need to introduce a more creative way in terms of use of land. So, for this season, we have a collaboration with DIAGEO, an American company, for sorghum production. We are working with them to get 3 600 hectares under sorghum. So, those are some of the new opportunities that have come up. On the vegetable side, there are vast opportunities in the European Union for asparagus. We are also working with research institute, ARC, on the new cultivars that we can grow here given the recurrent droughts. We are also looking at cannabis as a potential crop for good returns. There is a good market for our sheep and goats in the Middle East and India. We are preparing for that. We urgently need more abattoirs which can handle goats. There is great potential for local farmers. Basically, it’s a very strategic, systematic and healthy situation.

But as we speak right now, how well are black farmers doing, particularly those in AFASA?

Notwithstanding the challenges, we are seeing growth amongst farmers. We are seeing people exporting and there is growth in citrus farming. We see them exporting to China and other areas. So, in a sense, the narrative is shifting. What important for people to appreciate about the conference is that the farmers paid for themselves. The conference was specifically funded by the farmers. The farmers paid a fee to attend. There was no government transport. They paid for their own transport. I think it is important to highlight this because these are the people working to ensure that the dream of commercialisation is possible among black farmers. What we are sitting with right now is a nightmare of commercial production from food and other sectors which continue to be racialised. But in a sense, the capabilities demonstrated at the conference, confirmed that with the right support, we can change the face of the economy for everybody, both black and white.

This is obviously something that has been talked about for a long time but change seems to be taking much longer than expected, how best can the country realise this change?

It is in the interest of the country that we deracialise the economy. It is also in the interest of the country that we engender the economy and all the other challenges including having people with disabilities actively participating in the mainstream economy. The youth focus is also an imperative for us because youth unemployment is a crisis. But what excites us about youth in the agricultural sector is that they have appreciated the use of technology much more than us the older ones. It is something we believe will help agriculture grow. The youth should be allowed to play an active role in this.