Agriculture shines yet again as the leading employer in South Africa. Thanks to excellent harvests in the last quarter of 2021, increased activity on farms, and improved financial conditions, the sector could employ 38 000 more people towards the end of last year.
Statistics South Africa released the employment result for the fourth quarter of 2021 on Tuesday (29 March 2022). It showed a 7,1% year-on-year increase in primary agriculture jobs – to 868 000 – which experts say is well above the long-term agricultural employment average of 780 000.
According to Agri SA employment specialist Lebogang Sethusha, the results show the growing importance of the agricultural sector as an employer in South Africa.
But while the overall numbers appear to be good, Agri SA says that skilled agri jobs have not recovered to the previous year’s levels. Only 68 000 people were employed in skilled agricultural jobs in the last quarter of last year, compared to 85 000 people in 2020.
“This is a 20.6% decrease year on year,” says Sethusha. “While the quarter-on-quarter results do show a level of recovery (skilled employment stood at 63 000 jobs in quarter 3 of 2021), there is still much ground to be made up. It remains a concern that this drop in skilled employment represents a brain drain for the sector.”
Rising above challenges
According to Wandile Sihlobo, chief agricultural economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), the fourth quarter results are a reminder of the excellent season that agriculture experienced in 2021.
To appreciate the significance, Sihlobo says that primary grains such as maize and soybeans saw production reached 16,3 and 1,9 million tonnes, respectively. “For maize, this is the second-largest harvest in the history of South Africa.” Soybeans yielded a record harvest.
Other field crops also generated large yields in 2020-21. The South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (Sawis) reported the 2021 wine grape crop at 1,5 million tonnes, which was 9% more than the 2020 harvest.
Citrus, deciduous fruits and various horticultural products also recorded large harvests, while citrus exports reached record volumes.
Despite the livestock industry being hit by biosecurity challenges such as foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks and high feed costs towards the end of the year, the subsector still held relatively well and benefited from the improvement in grazing veld.
“Thus, it is unsurprising that the jobs gains in quarter four of 2021 were widespread in crops, livestock, forestry and horticulture,” Sihlobo says. “The aquaculture subsector saw a mild decline in employment compared to quarter four 2020.”
Investment needed for skills development
Employment figures weren’t favourable across the board, however. In the Western Cape, jobs went down by 19 000, the Free State saw an overall decline of 6 000 and Limpopo saw a drop of 9 000. These were overshadowed, however, by the other provinces’ increases.
Sethusha says that, despite the overall positive results, the sector’s growth continues to be stifled by poor infrastructure such as roads, rail, and ports, coupled with other challenges such as rising input costs.
“In this difficult climate, the growth in employment in the sector for quarter four of 2021 shows that the sector is still capable of absorbing labour and providing much-needed jobs to South Africans.
“Addressing these constraints on growth would enable the sector to create even more employment opportunities during this difficult period as the economy recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic,” she says.
She further calls for investment in skills training, as the sector shows great potential to absorb labour, as well as many opportunities for people with low skill and education levels and a current loss of skilled employment.
Sihlobo cautions that the year ahead might see a slight decline in employment, specifically in seasonal labour. “Rising farming input costs such as fuel, fertilisers and agrochemicals will add pressure on farmers.
“Field crop harvests could [also] be lower than in the 2020-21 season. We are holding a reasonably cautious view on primary agriculture employment conditions this year, while we are not foreseeing a significant decline.”
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