Poor transport infrastructure holds agriculture back

South Africa needed to improve its transport infrastructure if it was to become a globally competitive exporter of agricultural produce, according to Jaco Minnaar, president of the agriculture industry organisation Agri SA.

Minnaar told Agri SA’s annual congress that transport infrastructure was a “crippling problem” for the sector.

He said that in the past year, there had been a regression in important public infrastructure such as roads, rail and freight infrastructure, as well as disruptions in electricity supply.

A survey done by Statistics South Africa in late 2021 revealed that only about 8% of all agricultural products were transported by rail, despite it being much cheaper than road transport. The result is excess hauler traffic on roads, with all the negative effects it causes.

Research published by the World Bank showed that, in 2020, it took about 92 hours on average to export goods from South Africa, compared with 12.7 hours in more efficient countries. Exports also cost about eight times more from South Africa than from other countries.

“Our harbours, with the same equipment as other countries, handle about a third of their volumes, according to the big shipping companies. Hence, the same report by the World Bank found that our harbours are the worst-performing of the evaluated harbours worldwide,” Minnaar said. 

Farmers and agricultural businesses had stepped in to repair rural roads to ensure goods can reach their markets. 

Minnar said primary agricultural production had increased by about 9% a year between 2014/15 and 2020/21. Another good production year was expected, but the sharp increase in input costs, together with challenges in export logistics and market, foot and mouth disease outbreaks and other factors could put a damper on these expectations.

Exports, together with excellent local production, were the main reasons why South Africa was able to curb food price inflation compared to the rest of the world.

“Further, we need to protect our job-creating industries. Decisions like the relaxation of anti-dumping tariffs on chicken meat may bring short-term relief to the consumer, but, in the longer term, they cause significantly greater harm to workers, growth and development in the affected industries.

“This is not in the spirit of the recently signed Agriculture and Agro-processing Masterplan. We cannot undermine the plan we built together before it even gets off the ground,” Minnaar stated.