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South African agriculture at leading edge of global change

Despite the multitude of challenges South Africa faces, its farmers are tackling the future head on. Ben Briggs reports from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists annual congress in Pretoria and Cape Town.

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South African agriculture thrums to a different beat than farming in many other parts of the world.

 

With who you know seemingly as important as what you know, it is a contradictory mix of optimism and despair, future thinking and outdated reality, and, starkly, a racial dynamic cut along lines of black and white.

 

As with much of the continent, it is also the kind of country over which poverty, hunger and starvation loom like nowhere else.

 

And yet, amid this all, there is a drive to overcome these challenges and a realisation that if Africa is going to feed itself it will not do so by extending a begging bowl to Western aid.

 

Instead, it must empower those on the ground to feed themselves and this message was heard time and again during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) congress in South Africa at the start of April.

South Africa and its agriculture industry

  • 121 million hectares (298m acres) of land
  • 82m ha (202m acres) of agricultural land
  • Population of 53m
  • Unemployment rate of 26 per cent officially, with some speakers on the tour suggesting it was as high as 39 per cent
  • 36,000 commercial farmers. South Africa classes commercial as those with more than 1,000ha (2,470 acres)
  • 300,000 smallholders. These are under 1,000ha and mix some home production with products for market
  • 2.3m subsistence farmers producing food mainly for themselves and their families.
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Arrogance

 

For European farming journalists who see their industry maligned from within by well-fed animal rights activists, South Africa is somewhere which pricks the Western arrogance regarding food security and abundance of choice.

 

With much of its rural economy based on the cattle or game industries, not to mention citrus fruit, wine and arable, the current criticism many UK farmers were seeing from anti-agriculture campaigners was given short shrift by those in a country in which agriculture is seen a life-source, bringing food to the masses and employment to communities.

 

Adri Kitshoff, chief executive of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, leads an organisation which oversees 10,000 game ranches and a sector which supports 140,000 jobs.

 

She was dismissive of questions from some journalists as to whether the shooting of animals, such as buffalo and springbok, a medium-sized antelope, for trophy or meat purposes was ethically correct.

 

She said: “It is easy for people who work in 50-storey office blocks and who always eat breakfast, lunch and dinner to make these judgements. People in rural areas are hungry and the hunting industry is feeding them and their families.”

 

Speaking during a visit to Monate Game Lodge, which includes Thithombo Game Breeders, the site covers 3,000ha (7,500 acres) north of Pretoria. Many of the animals are bred with the same pedigree principles as in the UK, with an eye on breeding performance and genetics, particularly among the buffalo, a species in which bulls can go for more than £70,000.

 

With buffalo and other breeds of game animal heading for farms across the country, it is big business for a sector which draws in hunters from the US, Spain and eastern Europe. But travelling through the game reserves and peering through the intense African sun you see miles of three-metre tall (10ft) electric fences; security measures which are not just there to keep the animals in, but also keep intruders out.

 

And this is a paradox at the heart of the country; the people are friendly and approachable, yet the murder rate of farmers is appalling, at one per 1,000. The UK murder rate is one per 100,000.

 

With farmers seen as a soft target, this is set against a backdrop of land reform which began once Nelson Mandela took charge of the country in the early 1990s.

 

With black Africans able to lodge a claim for land which may have been their ancestral home until white settlers turfed them off in the colonial era, land reform has so far seen 3.4 million ha (8.5m acres) returned to black communities, with cash payments being made on a further 2.6m ha (6.5m acres) of land.

Mike Bosch: Poultry entrepreneur

Mike Bosch: Poultry entrepreneur

If any one farmer on the trip seemed to imbue the South African spirit it was Mike Bosch.

 

Tuned in to the African way of thinking, he had a roguish entrepreneurialism as the head of his business which bred Boschveld Indigenous Chickens, a mixture of the Venda, Ovambo and Matabele breeds.

 

With this hybrid producing a bird with more size and vigour, he had also developed a unique chicken rearing system which was being snapped up across Africa, transforming the lives of impoverished families in the process.

 

His six by three metre chicken runs, which he sold stocked with 60 Boschveld chickens, also support a solar panel on the roof which charges four LED lights and has USB points for mobile phones.

 

Set in place for a month, the chicken run is then moved and the soil, fertilised by nutrient-rich chicken manure, is able to be cropped.

 

By doing this, Mike believed he was providing a sustainable living for African subsistence farmers who were then able to feed themselves and earn cash charging mobile phones and lighting systems for the community.

 

With a form of Dorper sheep grazing the land at his farm so owls could swoop on rats and other vermin, his chicken breed was developed after seeing the lack of vigour inbreeding had caused in native breeds across the continent.

 

He said: “To survive in Africa you have to think how Africa thinks. A family can produce 30kg of food a month from those fertilised vegetable plots and this is the difference between life and death for many farmers.”

 

With chicken runs sold to 17 African countries so far through different non-governmental organisations and Government departments, he achieved between US$3,000-$7,000 (£2,322-£5,419) for them fully stocked, providing replacements for two years.

 

Tribal chief

 

But Mr Bosch had also experienced the issue of land reform which affects so much of South Africa, with a local tribal chief buying his farm from him in 2009.

 

He now leases the farm back from the chief and claims he has no issues with black communities wanting their land back, especially if you can work with them after the sale.

 

He added: “The chief has guys with AK47 assault rifles and if I have any problems they come round. That is not a bad thing to be able to call on.”

Land reform

 

However, as land reform ambles along, the rest of the continent remains an untapped resource of potential.

 

With maize yields standing at just 1t/ha (0.4t/acre) in much of Africa, farm leaders saw biotechnology as a key route to unlocking this potential, with 86 per cent of all maize in South Africa already grown using this technique.

 

Theo de Jager, a farmer of fruits and timber in Limpopo Province and president of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, believed there was a disconnect in the development of African farming which desperately needed addressing.

 

He said: “About 70 per cent of farmers are women and they are still using the hand hoe as their main tool. This needs putting in a museum, not a field. We have gone from the drum as a means of communication to the smartphone, with nothing in between.

 

“The key to unlocking Africa’s potential is to get farmers together as they can achieve more this way. I am also crazy about us harnessing technology as it can be the difference between profit and loss.”

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