“We need to make agriculture cool if we are to interest young people back into the trade,” bellowed Malose, a young farmer from Mokopane to his 30 or so peers who had gathered as part of BackChat to discuss youth participation in agriculture.
He was introduced to farming through the National Rural Youth Service Corps, a programme focusing on rural youth development which has churned out tens of thousands of graduates who possess various skills and are making a difference in their rural communities.
Malose went on about the need to make young people know that agriculture works, and that through it they can earn a living, contribute to the country’s food security and grow the economy.
Before the suits and ties inspired by Hollywood star Michael Douglas about the reign of finance and the services sector, khakis and boots were the order of the day among young Afrikaner Turks who looked forward to inheriting their fathers’ farms.
Among the black folks, we were engulfed in the fashionable careers of IT, telecommunications and retail, and this led to agriculture taking the back seat as the backbone of our economy and giving way to finance and services sector.
The news delivered two weeks ago by Pali Lehohla, our Statistician-General, that our economy has been lifted out of the technical recession with GDP rising by 2.5% rang even more melodic with agriculture being one of the key drivers of this growth.
The weather has not been kind to the crops in recent times, but with recent blessings from the heavens, maize farmers and the Minister of Finance are now smiling.
I cannot agree more with the meeting of the G20 of Ministers of Agriculture which underscored the importance of agriculture and called for steps to be taken to improve access and availability of safe, sufficient and nutritious food for the most vulnerable – especially unemployed – women, youth and children.
Our NDP 2030 envisions a future free from poverty with full and productive employment that enriches the lives of rural people; a more diverse agriculture with farms of many sizes providing incomes (or part incomes) to many more people and creating close to 10% of the 11-million targeted jobs.
And what does all of this have to do with making agriculture cool?
A response to Malose’s plea means that we should steer our strategies towards a strong agricultural sector capable of dealing with the triple challenges facing our country, while adapting to climate change and reducing its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
Making it cool does not mean rocking up in Gucci overalls and Nike boots to rev the tractor or milk the cattle; it simply means an agricultural sector that is efficient, capacitated, productive and sustainable for better markets and increased investment.
The problem is that the commercial farming population is shrinking with new entrant producers struggling to break the barriers to entry into the commodities driving growth.
Many young people look down upon agriculture as not being “sexy” enough.
To sustain growth, this situation has to change. We must, as a youthful nation, leverage the “youth dividend” towards active engagement in agriculture.
This is a sector with the greatest potential for job creation, enterprise development, and enhancing incomes and wealth.
The full realisation of the socio-economic benefit of our youth is undermined by low literacy and skills levels, high unemployment as well as weak institutions, thereby limiting effective engagements and meaningful participation in the agricultural sectors.
Agricultural policies create an enabling environment for young people in agro-industry value chains. However, South Africa’s economy has always been linked to the separate development agenda. This has resulted in fragmented spatial development planning and patterns. A further result is the enduring underdevelopment with its social, economic and cultural manifestations: poverty, gross income inequality, and chronic unemployment.
Numerous opportunities exist for young people to participate throughout the value chain of the agricultural sector. Exciting career possibilities exist in the management of natural resources such as land, water and food waste; improved agricultural technologies and information use; innovative marketing tools and access to markets; food processing, packaging, manufacturing of production inputs such as fertilisers and seeds, livestock breeding, and so forth.
It requires decisive action, visionary and localised leadership for young people to embrace these opportunities as something attractive and desirable.
Young people should better capitalise on the dynamic daily connections in the rural economy as opportunities for active engagement and ownership.
There is a paradigm shift in biodiversity sub-sectors from a preservationist approach to sustainable use for the benefit of present and future generations.
We see the influence of this progressive shift in ecotourism, its impact on the economy and its significant multiplier effect.
Replication of successful ecotourism models with participation of youth in their local communities could be used as an economic engine to drive rural economies.
The Industrial Development Corporation and the Institute for Sustainable Futures predicts that 460,000 jobs could be created by our green economy in areas such as natural resource management, waste recycling, green energy generation and resource efficiency.
The green economy is extremely diverse, relatively new and fast evolving in many of its segments with agriculture at the centre of that evolution.
“For us to participate in agriculture, we need land!” bellowed Lerato, who now owns 20 hectares of land and is farming cabbages, this after a long battle with government and the traditional leadership.
So, in highlighting these areas of opportunities for youth, it is not the intention to downplay the debate about land reform for agrarian change.
We are aware that agrarian change (and rural development) begins with land as a national asset for food sovereignty and food security. For this reason, the rural development policy framework is premised on the effects of the dispossession of land and systematic deprivation of land use rights, culture and the social cohesion of black South Africans.
We see successful engagement in land ownership and land use as a rights-based issue, and productivity in agriculture and related sectors in the value chain, as a barometer for success.
If we can take South Africa to a future where we are the net-exporter in agriculture, then we would have made a huge difference in changing our macro-economic discourse. The sooner we arrive there, the quicker we will avert the sinking of our economy and the realisation of prosperity, employment and equality. DM
Buti Manamela is Deputy Minister in The Presidency.
"I do not understand how holding a placard to protest against gender-based violence would be interpreted as insulting the modesty of a woman." ~ Beatrice Mateyo