In the Free State, the farming community has spent more than R5 million on fixing roads this past summer. In KwaZulu-Natal, one farmers’ organisation got together equipment and a workforce of 60 to repair critically damaged routes. Farmers across the country are increasingly weighing up the cost of maintaining government infrastructure against the cost of no upkeep at all. Either way, it’s wasted money that could have boosted farm productivity and growth.
A spot survey conducted following last year’s flooding in the Free State, revealed that a few farmers and Agri SA had collectively spent over R5 million on fixing damaged roads. According to Free State Agriculture’s Jack Armour, this is an average spend of R200 000 per farmer.
“Farmers are now paying the grader operators themselves to get their roads bladed so that they can transport their harvest to markets.” This also applies to agribusinesses delivering inputs to farms, Armour says but they are often still risking treacherous gravel roads.
All of it is eating into their operational budgets.
Fifteen tractors, five backhoes, 60 men
Hayden Stokes, a farmer from the Creighton area of KwaZulu-Natal, tells Food For Mzansi that he was compelled to repair the D170 road between Creighton and Tarr’s Valley himself. This was simply to ensure that his smallholder business was not jeopardised by poor workmanship from government, he says.
“[The bad state of the roads] is disastrous for farmers and rural communities who depend on these roads. Roads have become nearly impassable and have become dangerous to use. We are now filling with shale to try and prevent the road from further falling away.”
Kwanalu CEO Sandy la Marque also tells of how farmers in the province have embarked on their own restoration efforts.
“The collective effort of provincial agricultural unions is essential to invoking urgent action on a problem that affects everyone in the country. Agriculture and rural livelihoods are affected, but so too the public who relies on this supply chain for food,” she says.
The Mid Illovo Farmers’ Association in KwaZulu-Natal are among the agri organisations who have allocated money to fixing dilapidated roads. The chairperson of the association, Brett Chubb, says that access routes into and out of Mid Illovo and some parts of Creighton had been severely affected by the recent floods. Sugar and timber could not be transported out of the district.
“This resulted in the complete halt of farm operations; no food and no income. We have no schools in the area and children could not get to schools. The impact was immense.”
To fix the roads, Chubb says they organised 15 tractors and trailers, five tractor loader backhoes, quarry and rock loads, chainsaws and bush cutters to cut grass growing alongside the road. “In addition, each of these needed drivers and operators and a further eight conductors, eight supervisors and 60 staff members to get the job done.”
The cost of fixing vehicles
The chief executive of Tip-Top Milk, David de Jager, says dilapidated roads are making it difficult for them to run their milk marketing and distribution business, and are costing them unnecessary money.
“During a four-month period, from November 2021 to February 2022, Tip-Top Milk spent R176 000 in fleet repair costs due to poor road conditions in KZN alone.”
He says it is the South African public, who relies on the supply of food, that is affected directly by rising transport costs.
Although they have not fixed any roads themselves, the dilapidated network has forced their hand in different ways. “Our drivers contend with dangerous potholes, uneven road surfaces, washed away roads, chronic corrugation, and sometimes impassable roads.
“[We’ve had] to make some difficult decisions on where we can collect milk from and deliver milk to, which comes at a great cost to the entire dairy value chain and is affecting farmers and those we supply.”
De Jager is calling for urgent intervention from government and other stakeholders, as he believes further neglect will have a devastating impact on the dairy industry, food security and the economy.
Armour adds that urgent maintenance and repairs to road infrastructure is critical for economic recovery.
La Marque says her organisation has engaged with KwaZulu-Natal transport MEC Peggy Nkonyeni and director-general Alec Moemi on the road infrastructure challenges that farmers experience.
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