Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 14 September 2015

Agriculture is a new critical market force

The right to food is arguably as important as the right to shelter. Because of the socialist nature of the Constitution, it will be unconstitutional for the South African government not to invest heavily in invigorating the food sector value chain.

Africa has always been a mining and agricultural land and it is time for Africans to take ownership of what they eat again. Global economic imperatives demand that policy makers consider agriculture a key industry above mining.

There has been reluctance in the past to consider agriculture part of a market economy other than just a means of subsistence for women and families. There are many contributing factors to this including urbanisation, whereby African males moved to towns leaving their wives to tend vegetables and grains, and other more complicated factors like politics and geography.

Going back in time, from the Aryan race, to the Mongols and Greeks, these civilisations have an impressive history of learning from each other, passing on knowledge either through the compensated formal acquisition of skills or through war and conquest and civil unions between empires.

With east-to-west connecting routes totalling some 9,000,000 square kilometres, Eurasia had a seamless thoroughfare. This thoroughfare was made even better by the mostly shared climate from east to west. Agricultural technology improvements, methods and inventions from the east could easily be adopted in the west. This made farming develop more quickly as the animals of the east met the west, and crops were passed on too.

Africa is situated opposite Eurasia. Africa connects north to south over 33,000,000 square kilometres. Unlike Eurasia, the thoroughfare is challenging and extreme. Africa’s climate changes with each 350 kilometres travelled, there is desert, savannah, tropical forest, coastal plain, savannah again, ragged mountains, hills and again punishing plains, coastal plains and desert sands. Africa is large, and can easily fit four other continents as can be see in the image.

These have formed a great movement barrier in a reluctant continent.

Africa still has tsetse flies and killer malaria mosquitoes. Agriculture is not far from Africa’s heart in terms of subsistence requirements and religion, as we still use agricultural produce to seek protection or seek love from our ancestors or forces using animal sacrifices and vegetable offerings.

African kingdoms like the Ashanti and the Zulu engendered farming beyond subsistence.

Globally, geography has always been one of the key drivers of development, while climate dictated how quick a people developed survival tricks.

Agricultural farming developed best in Eurasia because its climate was drier. Eurasia also had less choice than Africa in terms of wild antelope to hunt or animals to domesticate.

Africans had the luxury of remaining hunters, whereas other humans had to be both hunters and gatherers to survive. With great capabilities in arts, engineering and construction, equal to those of the Romans or Chinese, Africa’s physical landscape prevented greater empires being built.

Ironwork made the Zulu spear and Ashanti jewellery globally famous. Ironwork started in about 450AD in Africa and pioneered new techniques in smithing.

An ancient town of Jenne-Jeno in Niger is said to have been the Wall Street of Africa between 400AD and 800AD.

Great Zimbabwe is still a marvel for its grand architecture. The Bantu were in the middle of things in development and innovation. Great artworks from Benin are still among the world’s best.

Cattle farming, gold mining, terracotta art, stone carving and sculpting, great works of towns like Timbuktu all tell the tale of an Africa punished by topography but blessed with riches.

Africa had the means and know-how since but was condemned by its climate and general geography.

African agriculture ministers are bullish about shaping an agricultural market projected to be worth $1-trillion by 2030, three times its current size. Africa’s total gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.5-trillion is projected to be $29-trillion in 2050.


In Africa, 80% of the food is produced by smallholder farmers or subsistence farmers who tend crops and raise livestock on less than a hectare of land – and most of them are women.

A few countries, such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burkina Faso, are making increased headway in their agriculture sectors. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Egypt have for decades led in industrial scale agriculture but they have a long way to go in developing smallholder or small-scale farming.

Of course colonisation, civil wars and apartheid prevented the free movement of Africans in the continent. This I believe arrested knowledge sharing in areas such as agriculture. It also placed serious constrains on human development and caused a reversal of human knowledge and the preservation of ancient knowledge for generations to use as a base for advancement.

The slave trade also robbed Africa of development. Slave traders selected the best Africans, chained them up and removed them, with their skills and knowledge, to far away lands to develop Eurasia or the Americas.

Colonisation and its legacy separated Africans further. Not only does Africa have varied cultures of its own but the colonisers brought in new cultural divides, with German, Italian, French and English dominating and separating people and families. The colonial masters’ own wars became Africa’s internal wars. This also redrew borders and mixed people who did not want to mix, thus causing more natural conflicts. These conflicts persists today and are still making farming and mining development hard on borders such as between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This makes the call for the abolishment of La Franchophone and The Commonwealth groupings even more urgent.

It’s not mining; it’s agriculture

Advancing economies usually see the percentage of the agricultural labour force followed by mining decline over years; a sign of an advancing population, an advancing educational system that is producing ambitious minds and following global trends.

New jobs become technologically oriented or sophisticated. The services sector becomes the greatest employer in advanced economies as machines ake over manual labour as industries become more sophisticated. This is now a natural course until slow growth persists and the population expands.

Already in 1980, South Africa had over half of its labour force in the services sector. During this same time over 65% of the US labour force was employed in the services sector.

The rise of employment away from agriculture causes the rise of urbanisation. Inevitably, urbanisation is a result of economic growth. With urbanisation comes difficulties for policy makers in the free world, where urban influx controls do not exist. Squatter camps or slums and ghettos are almost inevitable; pressure on the electricity grid and crime come with urbanisation.

The less advanced an economy, the heavier the role of agriculture in its total production output. A country like Uganda still has over 45% of its GDP concentrated in agriculture.

It is estimated that South Africa will have 65-million people by 2035. Should the current birth rate not be disturbed by urbanisation, the country will gradually experience difficulties over its resources, and food resources in particular. As it is, South Africa is the second-driest country in the world after Israel.

What does this mean for the future of food and water security?

In 1950, agriculture and fishing contributed 18% to GDP In South Africa, this declined to 5.1% in 1993 and to 2.4% a decade later.

Future economic growth could be sparked by agriculture again as the threat to food security is growing when projected 15-25 years into the future, taking climate change and water scarcity into account.

This trend is not unique to South Africa as all developed countries have similar challenges.

Making the agriculture sector reasonable wages may contribute to slowing urbanisation and food insecurity.

The minimum wage President Jacob Zuma has called for is of serious importance. South Africa also requires a proper regulatory body to oversee the proper pricing of food commodities in markets or food will continue to become more expensive as bankers play with food as an investment product and not a basic human need.

South Africa’s Competition Commission is not well placed to tackle the price manipulation of the food commodities market while also approving mergers between company A and company B or seeing through the acquisition of company A or B and all the other related aspects of anti-trust laws.

Policy makers must consider establishing a regulator with wide powers to oversee, regulate and monitor the commodities market. Inflation woes will not be arrested otherwise, nor will farmers their get their fair share.

South Africa’s Constitution is loaded with many economic rights for individuals – housing, schooling, medical care, pensions and social grants are a right from birth. The right to food is arguably as important as the right to shelter. Because of the socialist nature of the Constitution, it will also be unconstitutional for the state not to invest heavily in invigorating the food sector value chain, including processing. DM


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