Two years ago, former president Jacob Zuma announced a programme that would commercialise 450 black smallholder farmers every year. This was the state’s attempt at radical socioeconomic transformation, we were told. The idea was to support carefully selected semi-commercial farmers for five years until they were fully fledged, largescale commercial farmers, with the aim of having at least 2 250 such farmers by 2022. About R220 million was allocated to the project for the 2018/19 financial year. So what happened?
Who are the farmers who were supported and what have they achieved? The reason I ask: during the past month, while putting together this edition of African Farming, I spoke to four of probably the most progressive black farmers in the country. All of them have graduated from being smallholder farmers to commercial farmers over the past 10 years and none were beneficiaries of Zuma’s project.
Kobela Mokgohloa (32) has been farming in Winterveldt for more than 10 years. He started at the bottom and has grown his business organically without any massive cash injections from government. Having invested his own resources, he runs a commercial operation today, employing more than 25 permanent employees. He funded his operation with loans and has made a success of it through hard work, dedication and passion.
When Jimmy Botha took over a rundown 22ha farm in Tarlton in 2015, he sacrificed everything to turn it around. It took blood, sweat and tears to build Inspired Leaf Farm to the commercial success that it is today, supplying high-end clients Woolworths and Pick n Pay. He, too, did it with minimal support from government. Now the farm employs more than 42 permanent employees and 30 seasonal workers – a huge economic asset for this impoverished community.
Ntate Kleinjan Gasekoma, who started dreaming of becoming a farmer when he was just a herd boy, farms commercially in the Reivilo district outside Vryburg in North West. To get there was a long hard slog that included selling his car in the 1990s to buy three cows. Today he manages an awardwinning stud of more than 200 breeding cows and remains the only black farmer ever to have won the prestigious Voermol National Cattle Farmer of the Year award.
When Obakeng Mfikwe took over Rietfontein in Lichtenburg, North West, he invested his own money to bring back to life the 466ha farm. It took time, patience, a lot of hard work and a lot of money. With the help of bank loans, he has since bought three more farms, consolidating his commercial operation over almost 2 000ha, where he plants maize and sunflower, and manages three stud herds as well as a 170 000-birdper- cycle broiler operation. All with the absolute minimum assistance from the state. So while government misses the opportunity to support such low-hanging fruit that could help the country reach the goals set in the National Development Plan for 2030, real farmers just get on with farming.
Interestingly, their white commercial farming colleagues seem to be making a far greater contribution to their success than the state ever did. Every black farmer I spoke to had a story of their commercial neighbours imparting skills and knowledge, and even making their own resources available to them to ensure they succeed! In the process some deep friendships have been established.
I think we’re repeating the mistakes made in land reform 25 years ago when the right beneficiaries weren’t identified. Today, we’re once again unaware of who the real farmers are, and so we don’t support real commercialisation of farmers who would add real value to our country. Instead we have allowed the land-reform process to get marred by political interference and corruption, preventing us from correcting the wrongs of the past and achieving our transformation goals. This has prevented us from becoming a prosperous, united country.
We can only imagine what could have been achieved if we had allocated resources to farmers such the ones I’ve mentioned or the many others out there. Having said that, I do think the state should support smallholder farmers. Why can’t we support both? After all, you won’t have any large commercial farmers if you can’t build a base of smallholder farmers who would become the next generation of large-scale commercial farmers. All the farmers I’ve mentioned above were once smallholder farmers. Smallholder and large commercial farmers should coexist, the one ensuring local household food security, while the other takes care of national food security and creates employment.
This means we’ll have to urgently refocus the little resources we have to give our smaller farmers equitable access to the means of production such as water, land, and capital. Then we need the correct, practical research with which to support them. We need to give them access to proper markets, expose them to any technological innovations and improve their farm infrastructure where we can.
What’s more, the programmes already exist! The department of agriculture already has farmer commercialisation programmes, stimulus packages and the black industrialist programme. All we need now is the will and commitment to get the job done.