The relentlessness of South Africa’s latest round of load shedding is pushing farmers deeper into survival mode. Some producers report their businesses coming to a standstill while the power is out, and concerned voices are asking for how long the agricultural sector can keep this up.
“Retailers are starting to reject fresh produce, mainly vegetables due to delays in delivery and disruption in the cold chain,” says Agri SA executive director Christo van der Rheede, who highlights waste and financial losses along the value chain. “In summer this challenge increases exponentially. This will reduce the amount of food available and increase its cost to the consumer.”
He adds that, with essential systems unavailable during the day, farmworkers need to work after hours, which increases production costs.
“The impact of the ongoing power outages on the agricultural sector and the wider economy holds serious implications for food security and social stability,” he says in a statement. “The extended period of level 6 load shedding threatens the viability of the sector. An escalation to level 7 and higher will be catastrophic and pose a risk to the country’s national security.”
Poultry farmers juggling costs
Joandra Gregory, a poultry farmer in the Western Cape, says that power outages have doubled the cost of production in her business while productivity has taken a dip. Electricity is a major operating expense for poultry farmers as it keeps their operations going.
“We planned for load shedding by acquiring generators, but diesel and petrol is again killing us when we must use this. With stage 6 load shedding hours we’re just not winning.”
She says that creating and sustaining jobs is becoming difficult. Many families could be affected if there were to reach the point of layoffs.
“This has really affected our profitability. It’s low, and we are not able to serve all our clients. The power cuts are affecting [our] operations, and we are not able to meet our targets.”
Another poultry farmer, from Mpumalanga, says he is struggling to keep his business going. Sibongiseni Mahlangu says the erratic heat supply has an impact on quality, especially during winter.
This is despite his precautions to ensure that his chickens are comfortable. “We end up producing low-quality products, which leads to loss of business,” Mahlangu says.
He also fears damage to the strong relationships he has built with his clients over time. “Some of the customers stop buying our products because the quality has changed.” The resulting profit margin squeeze seems to tightens its grip on his business by the day, he says.
Dairy industry also hit
In South Africa’s milk industry, consumers could soon be feeling the impact of load shedding in their pockets as dairy product prices are set to rise, Milk Producers Organisation chairperson Colin Wellbeloved tells Food For Mzansi.
“This is very negative for our operations. We operate 24/7, 365. We use diesel generators for milking but it’s not feasible for irrigation, which is extremely necessary at this time of the year.
“It’s an unnecessary and costly hardship that will eventually be shouldered by the consumer,” he says.
According to Wellbeloved, the petrol price is also contributing to a negative industry outlook and it’s likely that growth will not be realised in the sector.
Van der Rheede adds that pumping stations, irrigation, cooling and other systems all depend on power supply and while some farmers have the means to move away from the power grid, most are unable to do so.
This is especially true for the most vulnerable sector: small-scale farmers. “Farmers forfeit their water quotas for irrigation purposes when the power is off – an irrecoverable loss that paralyses farms,” he says.
Gregory agrees on affordability. From where she stands, alternative energy for small-scale farmers is just too big of an ask. “We cannot afford another source of energy because of the huge capital that is required.
Mahlangu says farmers resort to manual heating such as coal stoves and gas heaters for backup. Because load shedding is now so regular, farmers are forced to incur the added expenses of keeping their own power on.
Van der Rheede says Agri SA supports Eskom’s decision to increase its renewable energy capacity soon.
“An additional 4 000MW or 4GW of wind and solar power generation capacity can help reduce load shedding incidents. The department of mineral resources and energy has a critical role to play in quickly getting the necessary policy infrastructure in place so that Eskom can increase its capacity. Failure to do so poses serious economic risks to South Africa, including social instability.”
He also hopes that the Presidency will prioritise stability and safety at all power plants, as these plants are regarded as national key points. “Sites of strategic importance must be protected against sabotage.”
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