Agri master plan needs review

South Africa’s agricultural master plan will not get going unless all those involved – including government, agriculture and labour – get together and agree on revised plans to increase production, employment and exports.

These are the views of one of the country’s top agricultural economists, Wandile Sihlobo, expressed during a webinar reported by Engineering News.

He said the master plan should be treated as a “recovery plan”.

The Agricultural and Agoprocessing Master Plan was launched in May last year, with ambitious targets for growth and job creation. Sihlobo’s opinion was that the plan was “still doable, but needs adjustment”.

The master plan is expected to unlock 10% to 15% growth in gross value-add and to create about one-million jobs in the primary agriculture and agroprocessing sector. For it to succeed, signatories needed to get together “to explore opportunities for all the high-value commodities,” Sihlobo said.

He said agriculture’s challenges had increased since the plan was signed, including rising input costs, high levels and frequency of power cuts, and deteriorating transport infrastructure.

South African agriculture is export-oriented – 51% of the country’s agricultural produce goes to other countries – and Sihlobo urged a focus on primary export markets.

In 2022, some 40% of the $12.8 billion in agricultural exports went to other African countries, 27% to Asia, 20% to the European Union (EU), 4% each to Britain and the United States, and only 2% to Russia.

“So, although the US is an important market for us, the EU is the primary market that we want to nurture a relationship with,” Sihlobo said.

Exports needed to grow, but for this to happen, production had to expand.

He said electricity supply was a major consideration for an industry heavily dependent on irrigation. He welcomed the Agro Energy Fund, which helps farmers instal renewable energy systems, but said all of the signatories needed to re-evaluate the sector’s energy plans for the next season.

He also pointed to the potential for agricultural development on under-used land.

“We think the South African government currently has close to 4-million hectares of land. Some of it is agricultural and can be brought into full production and nearly 2-million hectares of that land has already been audited by the Agricultural Research Council.

“To put it into perspective, South Africa currently plants about 4.3-million hectares of summer grains and seeds. That number can be increased substantially, for grains, horticulture and livestock, leading to better output for exports and job creation in the process,” Sihlobo noted.

He was optimistic that the master plan could become a success, and help to address the country’s issues of poverty, hunger and unemployment.

“I see a vibrancy in the agri-processing and business space that can generate the jobs that we so desperately need. Although this policy is not a perfect one, it is supportive of growth in this sector, and that’s what we need to focus on,” Sihlobo said.