Agriculture and its value chain have been earmarked by the government as one of the key sectors to boost economic growth and create jobs. But like other areas of the economy, the future of the sector is unpredictable due to the technological disruptions we are already seeing as South Africa starts embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
In its National Development Plan, the government estimates it can potentially create 600,000 jobs in communal areas and another 300,000 jobs through commercial farming by 2030.
If these goals become a reality, they could provide a major boost to build an inclusive rural economy. The South African countryside and the rural economy it supports retains huge potential for value- and job-creating activity. However, the state and rural stakeholders – farming communities, commercial agriculture, land rights activists, environmentalists and other interested parties – need to collaborate to find solutions to stark challenges that remain for the sector.
The economic value chain that encompasses farming, food production and distribution, general agriculture and land usage faces myriad challenges, some unique to South Africa. There are generally fewer permanent jobs in the sector, and wages are lower.
The global challenge of climate change is taking its toll, land redistribution has been patchy and painfully slow, there are gaps in the support for developing farmer, from both the state and relevant commercial entities; and while South Africa has underutilised arable land, many of its people live with hunger and food insecurity.
The World Economic Forum has warned South Africa that its rural population cannot be left behind as the country starts coming to terms with 4IR, as this will only widen the yawning inequality gap.
But 4IR disruption contains at least as many opportunities for development as it does challenges: new seed technologies can help increase yields without endangering public health and safety, emerging farming methods may help promote more sustainable land use, increased production could lead to increased job creation, and the growing importance of technologies such as drones, accurate geo-mapping, and the use of big data can help manage both South Africa’s water scarcity and the effects of climate change. Moreover, some of the emerging technologies and methods of food distribution and storage make it possible to reduce waste and increase food security in vulnerable communities.
For these reasons, 4IRSA held a workshop in Cape Town on the sector on March 19, 2019, for stakeholders to come together and discuss the future of food. They included government, labour, business and university researchers.