As South Africa enters its fifth consecutive week of the covid-19 lockdown the nation’s farmers have, once again, pledged their support for unprecedented efforts to try and curb the further spread of the deadly virus.
Jaco Oosthuizen, the CEO of the RSA Group, the country’s top fresh produce organisation, tells Food For Mzansi that he salutes the farmers who have answered Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa national call to action.
Last night, during another live television broadcast, Ramaphosa announced a five-level plan to ease the lockdown from 1 May 2020. The president says although there is clear evidence that the lockdown is bearing fruits, it cannot be sustained indefinitely.
“Our people need to eat. They need to earn a living. Companies need to be able to produce and to trade, they need to generate revenue and keep their employees in employment,” he says just two days after also announcing a R500 billion covid-19 economic stimulus and social relief package.
Fresh fruit and veg vital during pandemic
Oosthuizen says, “What farmers and their employees are doing on their (respective) farms, is making a massive difference to everyone in the country. I’d like to thank you for the huge effort you’re putting in to make sure South Africans continue to have access to vital fresh produce during this time of crisis.”
The RSA Group boss believes that the novel coronavirus, which continues to spread rapidly in all parts of the country, forces the agricultural sector to think differently. “The supply chain has moved, and people have had to look at innovative ways to keep their businesses in operation. The application of technology will have a rapid rise in the industry, more specifically when we look at transparency and traceability.”
On import and exports, Oosthuizen says the main lockdown concern was whether the sector could cope at the ports. He, however, thinks that industry organisations did a great job in communicating with the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Thoko Didiza, and being actively involved with port authorities.
“Historically we do not have a great reputation for on-time delivery because of challenges at our harbors, but I do think we are starting to get it right,” says Didiza.
Oosthuizen encourages farmers to hone their skills and understand the different marketing channels better during this time. “Focus on producing quality and being consistent. People want to know where their produce is coming from so make sure that you connect with the buyer or end consumer through your branding.”
Farmers remain committed to feeding the nation
“As farmers we are sent by God to provide food to His people during this pandemic. So, we as farmers have accepted that responsibility,” add Limpopo-based vegetable farmer Phillip Kgapane.
He exclaims that farmers are known for their patience and resilience. “I am sure that most farmers will still come out of this crisis with the same spirit. Mzansi’s agri sector is in the hands of capable people who won’t back down to any challenge.”
Gary Patience of the GT Agri Group in Saron in the Western Cape says, “The world just saw first-hand the crucial role farmers and the agri sector play in the country and our economy. I feel honoured to be a farmer and to do my bit in fighting hunger and feeding the nation.”
Patience, however, adds that the lockdown arrived during their planting season which resulted in a struggle to obtain certain inputs. “But ŉ boer maak ŉ plan (a farmer makes a plan) and we have been making all sorts of plans to keep on going through this difficult time.”
Reflecting on the global pandemic, urban exotic mushroom farmer Thabang Matome in Johannesburg says he hopes that following the lockdown more restaurants, fresh produce stores and the public will start supporting local, urban farmers.
Matome believes that food security is a huge concern and that farmers play a critical role in addressing this. “As farmers it’s important that we share our skills with vulnerable communities to grow a local economy by encouraging them to produce high level crops for the market.”
A yellow maize and non-GMO crops farmer, Njabulo Mbokane from Ermelo in Mpumalanga, has also been struggling to obtain certain inputs. She says, “We are now buying from other suppliers, which is not ideal in farming, because as a farmer you want to ensure that you have a good end-product. Maintaining good relationships with suppliers is also important.”
Mbokane thinks the way forward post covid-19 is simply for South African farmers to unite. “We need to educate one another about the best way forward in order to cut costs, while continuing to produce quality.”
Succeeding despite nationwide crisis
The CEO of Agrimotion Consulting in Cape Town, Coenraad Fraenkel, says, “If there is one country that always has some kind of crisis, yet still makes a success of their agriculture, it is South Africa.”
The agripreneur adds, “It is so important that we share the stories of hope and keep the fire burning. In 20 years, this will be a time that shaped us into a unified country where we had to fight a common enemy (SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for the virus that causes covid-19) for the first time.”
Maize and vegetable farmer Marvin Mavhunga from Thohoyandou in Limpopo says the lockdown has created opportunities for him as a small-scale farmer. “We are in demand now more than ever. Locals are now buying directly from farmers. Post covid-19, I think commercial farmers will export their products for higher currencies, leaving an opportunity for us as the smaller guys.”
Mavhunga adds, though, that lockdown restrictions have also impacted him negatively “I’m not a registered enterprise so I’m unable to obtain my essential service certificate. As a result, I can’t travel to buy inputs and my workers have been struggling to come to work. I think as emerging farmers we are really being pushed to step up our game.”
An organic fertilizer specialist, Thapelo Phiri of Golden Legacy Trading and Projects in Braamfontein, Johannesburg believes farmers have proven in the wake of the pandemic that they are the heart and soul of the country.
“I’m optimistic about Mzansi’s farming sector. The pandemic tested how much the country depends on its local agri sector. Going forward, I foresee local production increasing which will hopefully reduce import levels.”