Chicken Industry

Contract growers in peril from dumping during Covid-19

This letter was published in response to a FairPlay letter on Business Report’s website “Covid 19 Exposes SA to accelerated Food Security Threat” on June 25.

South Africa is learning many difficult lessons with Covid-19, and those of us who work in agriculture, producing food, have to overcome really hard challenges. I agree with Francois Baird of FairPlay that this could become a real food-security threat in South Africa.

Because KFC, Nandos and other takeaway restaurants were closed and the sale of hot foods banned during lockdown, chicken producers lost a big part of our regular market. We read of the jobs lost because of the lockdown and of the many people who can’t afford to buy meat anymore; we hear such awful stories of people going hungry this winter.

The cold stores across South Africa are all full, because production of chicken cannot be stopped and restarted easily; if the cycle is broken it takes almost a year to get it back to where it was. But if demand stays low, it might be unavoidable for some producers to scale down their output, and that can be disastrous news for contract growers like me.

At Kwena Chicks in the North West we raise 55 000 chicks every 32-day cycle on behalf of a big producer, who buys these birds a back from me. If the market is weak the producer might scale down the number of cycles in my calendar. This would affect my business and my 12 full-time workers risk losing work, because with fewer cycles I might not be able to afford all of them.

It is frightening to consider that in this challenging situation we also have to compete with other countries. Brazil, Europe, and America dump tons of chicken in South Africa every year, and now they also have over-full cold storage facilities because of the coronavirus. We can be sure that this stored chicken will be on its way to South Africa soon and will further flood our market and endanger our own chicken farmers.

For every farmer who goes out of business or who has to scale down operations, workers lose jobs and become poorer. South Africa has such high unemployment figures already – we cannot afford to sit back and allow dumping to destroy an industry that employs thousands of people and produces food for the nation. A country that starts depending on imported food instead of producing enough food to feed its own people, is playing with fire. Food security cannot be sacrificed. We cannot sacrifice our own people’s jobs.

We have to stop dumping and we have to stop it now. Our government has to speed up the processes for getting tariffs in place to discourage dumping. We have to prioritise our own food producers for the sake of our own food security in this country. Covid-19 is changing our economic outlook and we have to take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves as a nation.

Jake Mokwena is the owner of Kwena Chicks and a board member of the SA Poultry Association.