SA agriculture hammered by power cuts

South Africa’s daily power outages are wreaking havoc across the country’s agricultural sector, with multiple warnings that the lack of a reliable electricity supply is putting food security under threat.

The country’s struggling power utility, Eskom, has imposed cuts – known as loadshedding – every day this year, mostly totalling between six and eight hours a day (stages 2 to 4), but going up to 12 hours daily (stage 6) in a recent supply crisis.

The result is being felt in every part of agricultural production, from irrigation systems to sophisticated food production and processing. Food is being lost, wasted, spoiled or simply not produced.

The worsening energy crisis is the most serious issue facing agriculture at the moment, says Wandile Sihlobo, one of South Africa’s leading agricultural economists. He lists some of the areas most affected.

“In key field crops, roughly 20% of maize, 15% of soybean, 34% of sugarcane, and nearly half of the wheat production are produced under irrigation. Fruits and vegetables also heavily rely on irrigation and thus face similar challenges. 

“In red meat, poultry, piggery, wool, and dairy production, there are also concerns that load shedding beyond stage two makes operations and planning challenging, as these industries all require continuous power for their usual activities.

“Similarly, agribusinesses in various downstream processing activities, such as milling, bakeries, abattoirs, wine processing, packaging, and animal vaccine production, face similar challenges.

Exporting agribusinesses, especially those with products highly sensitive to delays, such as fruits, red meat, and wine, are also worried about the port activities, which fortunately haven’t been primarily affected.”

There are concerns about job losses if agricultural businesses are severely affected.

“There are also food security concerns as the effect of load shedding will probably show in the volumes of products to be harvested/produced later in the coming months due to the time lag in agricultural production stages,” Sihlobo says.

As it is practically impossible to exempt the whole agricultural sector from the power cuts, Sihlobo suggests government could facilitate the investments in alternative power generation which many farmers are already making, by cutting red tape and offering incentives.

Sihlobo reports that a task team is being set up by the Department of Agriculture, and will include agricultural industry representatives, energy experts and government officials. They will explore near-term and long-term energy solutions for the agricultural sector.

“This is a specialised matter that needs swift and focused intervention,” he says.