People still underestimate the future impact of the covid-19 pandemic, warns one of the leaders of the task team who are working day and night to ensure South Africans have food during the current lockdown
Dr. John Purchase, CEO of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), spoke to Food For Mzansi in an exclusive podcast interview about the “really hectic” work being done behind the scenes to keep the food supplies flowing.
The qualified agricultural scientist, who is widely celebrated for his agribusiness leadership, is convinced that the crisis is still going to deepen considerably given the expected coronavirus infection curve. He also serves as a member of both Business Unity SA and Nedlac.
“We must understand that this crisis is going to have a huge economic impact. I somehow think that people are underestimating it. A number of businesses – and not just in agriculture, especially outside agriculture – will not survive. Some are already closing down,” he says.
The details of emergency funding packages for farmers and agribusinesses that are feeling the pressure because of the 21-day lockdown, are not yet clear, he adds. This follows an earlier announcement by pres. Cyril Ramaphosa that the department of small business development has made funds available to assist covid-19 stricken businesses with a turnover of less than R50 million per annum.
“To assist all businesses is going to be difficult, so exactly what those criteria are, how much money will be available, in what form that support will be, I think at that this stage is speculation at best.”
Purchase and Agbiz are working with three different bodies representing government and the agricultural sector to coordinate supply chains and food distribution amid the unprecedented lockdown.
There is a coordinated effort through the task team of Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, as well as Business For SA (featuring, amongst others, Business Unity South Africa and the Black Business Council) and the Public Private Growth Initiative, which is run from Ramaphosa’s office.
Food distribution in informal markets
Agriculture and food processing are considered an essential service, and workers are therefore exempted from the lockdown. “Generally, our supply chains in the agricultural food space are working pretty well, nearly at 90% to 95% efficiency, but we do have some problems in certain areas.”
One of the biggest constraints currently is food distribution through the informal market segment, which has been badly disrupted by the lockdown.
The Agbiz boss says, “Roughly 30% of South Africa’s food is distributed through the informal market segment. That’s through the bakkie traders that procure on the Johannesburg and Tshwane fresh produce markets who then service all the vendors across Gauteng, and then also into the townships and informal settlements.”
About 30% of South Africa’s broiler chicken production is also by means of live fowls that enable people without refrigeration capacity to process the meat at home. The disruption of this supply chain hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.
On the other end of the spectrum there is huge concern about the lack of capacity at ports which constrains the export of fruit. This comes at a time when it is high season with pome fruit (apples and pears), the end of the season with table grapes whilst the citrus season is just starting.
Purchase says that his experience of working closely with Ramaphosa, Didiza and government has been “remarkably good”. He praises the president and his team for their willingness to engage and work together for the good of South Africans.
He does anticipate, though, that Ramaphosa might extend the lockdown beyond 15 April 2020. “The lockdown is definitely helping. I have no doubt about that, but we are only at the start of the curve. The crisis is going to deepen. I think we’ll flatten the curve fairly substantially, but we must understand that while we might have some relaxation of certain measures after the 21 days it might extend a week, maybe two weeks. We don’t know for sure. As minister Zweli Mkhize said, this will only peak in June or July in the winter.”