Increase support for smallholder farmers: Joemat-Pettersson

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cape Town - Africa can improve food security and boost economic growth by increasing support for smallholder farmers, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson said today.

Joemat-Pettersson, speaking at a conference on rural poverty hosted by the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), said while Africa continues to face enormous challenges in reducing poverty, "a vision of economic renaissance" led by smallholder farmers is beginning to take hold.

"There is a growing belief that Africa can produce enough not only to feed enough its own citizens, but export a growing surplus to the rest of the world," she said, adding that South Africa is spearheading a rail system which links the entire continent and allows farmers to take goods from road to rail across Africa.

There are about 500 million smallholder farms worldwide and about two billion depend on them for their livelihoods, according to Ifad.

These farms produce about 80 percent of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Joemat-Pettersson said the surge in food prices remained one of the world's biggest risks - with 44 million people having been pushed into poverty over the past year.

She said agriculture production would have to rise by 70 percent to feed the world's expected population of nine billion by 2050.

Despite the world having made "massive progress" in reducing poverty - specifically in south-east Asia - 1.4 billion people are still living on less than $1.25 a day, with one billion suffering from hunger in the world - with sub-Saharan Africa being the worst affected region, said the minister.

Joemat-Pettersson, who pointed out that 47 percent of Africa's arable land remains uncultivated, cited a recent Harvard study which revealed that the continent could increase its food production by 1.5 percent a year with more support.

She said agriculture can play a significant role in economic development and job creation - adding that the agriculture value-chain has been identified in the New Growth Path as one of key sectors to grow the country's jobs.

Agriculture would also be placed on the agenda for the Cop-17 conference, which takes place in Durban in November, she said.

Turning to the issue of land reform, Joemat-Pettersson said an equitable ownership of land remained essential to ensuring democracy.

"Our government has tried to bring in this balance between land reform and food security and it's a very tight balance - it's like walking on a tightrope," she said, adding that it was not sustainable for South Africa to rely on a small group of farmers for its food security.

The potential for smallholder farmers to become the backbone for the continent's food production is clear.

Nepad chief executive Ibrahim Mayaki said this was clear after a visit by Nepad in December to Brazil, one of the world's leading food producers.

Mayaki said 80 percent of the South American country's food is produced by smallholder farmers on farms averaging two hectares in size.

Ifad's 2011 Rural Poverty report, released in December, reveals that while the percentage of those living on $2 a day in rural areas has fallen globally in the last 20 years, it had risen substantially in sub-Saharan Africa.

The percentage of those living on $2 a day in rural areas worldwide, fell from 83 percent in 1988 (2.1 billion) to 61 percent in 2008 (1.8 billion), but increased in sub-Saharan Africa, from 75 percent in 1988 (251 million) to 87 percent in 2008 (433 million).

Despite this, Ifad president Kanayo Nwanze said the poor should not be treated as charity cases and pointed out that what the poor really lacked was access to markets.

"We have seen time and time again that market-orientated agriculture has tremendous power to generate incomes of sustainable economic growth," he said, adding that studies had shown that GDP growth in agriculture is potentially twice as effective in reducing poverty than any other sectors.

Nwanze said higher farm production is linked to better education and health, while more business and financial support allowed farmers to specialise in certain crops, which would ultimately allow them to grow their income.

The agricultural sector accounts for about 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP and 40 percent of its export value, he said.

However, African farmers are less productive than those from other continents, because they use about a tenth of fertiliser than is used by Asian and Latin American farmers.

Added to this, less than 2.5 percent of Africans use improved seeds, and only about three percent of Africa's farm land is under irrigation - most of it in Egypt - compared to 36 percent in Asia, he said.

Nwanze believes South Africa is the only sub-Saharan Africa country that comes close to using its full farm potential.

On top of this, while Africa loses about eight million tons of soil nutrients a year, the continent is already feeling the effects of climate change with the increase in crop failures leading to rising food prices.

To grow the agricultural sector, African countries also needed to maintain political stability, encourage more youth to turn to farming and importantly invest more in rural infrastructure, said Nwanze.

More than a third of those in rural areas live more than five hours away from market towns, which Nwanze said reduced any incentive to improve farming.

Gareth Ackermann, chairman of Pick 'n Pay, who also attended the conference, said the retailer - which has operations in several African countries - was struggling to source agricultural products from local suppliers.

He said the retailer faced several challenges such as land redistribution, which threatened food supplies, delays at border posts, competition with overseas retailers sourcing goods in South Africa, as well as new legislation.