Home News EXCLUSIVE: 'Covid-19 stresses importance of agricultural research'

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Covid-19 stresses importance of agricultural research’

“It’s not going to be business as usual,” warns NAMC top economist, Dr Sifiso Ntombela

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 Whilst the covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt food supply chains, especially in developing countries, Dr Sifiso Ntombela, chief economist of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), believes it also underscores the importance of agricultural research and innovations.

Ntombela hasn’t stopped working since the lockdown that brought the South African economy to a grinding halt. Yes, he isn’t exactly a bundle of nerves, but during a Farmer’s Inside Track podcast interview he admits that he is definitely feeling the urgency of accurate data analysis to support the agricultural sector through this crisis.

“It’s not going to be business as usual,” he explains pensively, re-imagining the rebirth of what he describes as South Africa’s “very strong and dualistic agricultural sector”. “We have a very strong commercial agri-sector and relatively poor and sometimes under-resourced small-scale farming.”

Covid-19 is forcing the sector to think innovatively, and especially to make some new plans to accelerate the establishing of a more inclusive food system.

Ntombela says, “There is going to be a very strong element of technology adoption in the agri-sector. Those that will adopt technologies faster will probably stand a better chance of being in a more competitive position than those that are struggling. And that talks to (the) function of accessing that technology and the affordability of that technology, which then goes back to our research capabilities of whether it is in place to cope with the needs farmers will have going forward. It also talks to the financing solutions…”

Navigating covid-19 pandemic

Despite a few board controversies last year, the NAMC – as a statutory body reporting to the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Thoko Didiza – has played a crucial role in navigating the covid-19 pandemic. Ntombela heads up the formidable economists’ hub at the NAMC’s Markets and Economic Research centre.

Mzansi’s food and agricultural sectors might have taken a huge financial knock as a result of the pandemic, but the country’s food supply is stable and secure. It is safe to say, Ntombela adds, that we have a well-established food supply system despite growing concerns that food stocks might not hold up. There is currently enough food to feed the nation, and no reason to panic about supplies in the nearby future.

Ntombela completed his PhD at the University of Pretoria after obtaining his bachelor’s, honours and master’s degrees in agricultural economics from Stellenbosch University. He grew up in Mtubatuba, just north of Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, realising early in his life that his future lies in agriculture.

In an earlier interview with Matie Voices the leading economist describes Mtubatuba as one of the poorest districts in the country.

“When I was young, this area used to flourish with agricultural activities involving sugar cane, vegetables, subtropical fruits and livestock, but the changes in agricultural policies and conditions caused these activities to collapse, leading to high levels of unemployment and subsequently to high levels of poverty and crime. I decided to study agricultural economics because it is key in crafting the policies and strategies for the food system in the country. As we know, a viable, profitable and sustainable food system is critical for alleviating poverty and promoting rural development.”

Today he is in the hot seat at the NAMC, frequently advising government as well as industry role players. Although he is optimistic about life after covid-19, he is worried that both commercial and small-scale farmers are already struggling with significant farm debt levels that constrains their ability to farm. He predicts that prioritising technological advances and research will be the two main drivers to help pull the sector through the uncertainty.

Covid-19 has also placed a renewed spotlight on increasing mechanization as well as the adopting of new technologies to meet farmers’ labour requirements.

According to Ntombela, the market forces will pressure farmers to rely on technologies in the sector post the pandemic.

Despite agriculture being the biggest “generator of labour”, mechanization “ultimately means replacing warm bodies or farm workers on farms,” Ntombela explains. He believes the sector can interpret this developing situation in two ways. They can either see it as a threat because we will be losing many of our agri-workers and farmers, or it can be an opportunity to determine how we can upskill the sector to better operate in a technologically advanced world.

Although we’re in the early stages of this pandemic, Ntombela paints an optimistic picture of the numerous opportunities covid-19 forces the sector to take going forward. The economist further questions how we will start developing our local markets to become key for farmers.

Dawn Noemdoe
Dawn Noemdoe
DAWN NOEMDOE is a journalist and content producer who cut her teeth in community radio. She brings a natural curiosity instinctively dedicated to truth telling. Persistent and nurturing a strong sense of commitment, Dawn’s heart for equality drives her work, also as Food For Mzansi’s Project Editor.
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