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Agriculture should be priority

In his state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa reaffirmed his commitment to bolstering investment, with the aim of accelerating inclusive economic growth and job creation.
While it is encouraging that our nation’s leader intends to continue the work already done by his administration in this regard, it is of particular interest that he highlighted agriculture, tourism and the oceans economy as key focus areas.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber has been vocal about the potential of these sectors as drivers for economic development.
Ramaphosa paid special attention to the agricultural sector in his speech, as this industry is not only labour intensive but still largely underdeveloped, in his view.
He emphasised the importance of agricultural exports, and the sector’s role in attracting investment and ensuring food security for the nation.
Given the challenges faced by the thousands of farmers who carry this responsibility, this offer of presidential support could not have come at a better time.
A recent survey by agricultural association AgriSA has painted a gloomy picture of the sector and how it has suffered as a result of ongoing droughts across the country.
Among the key findings of the survey was the devastating news that approximately 31,000 jobs had been lost since January 2018 due to the losses felt by farmers who are affected by droughts.
This has also cost these farmers around R7bn in the last year, with 70% of the respondents saying they had financial troubles and half of the farmers having to retrench workers as a result.
The survey found that 173 municipalities had been affected by the drought, of which 16 municipalities – including Nelson Mandela Bay and the neighbouring citrus stronghold of Sundays River Valley – are located in the Eastern Cape.
Since this province is also the largest producer of wool in Southern Africa – delivering close to 38% of the country’s wool value for the 2017/18 season – and the second largest region in terms of citrus production, these statistics are beyond concerning.
The survey places emphasis on the role government should play in mitigating the agricultural crisis.
Discussions have been scheduled with government departments and respondents expressed their concern over the lack of maintenance of water infrastructure, which also contributes to the problem.
To ensure the sustainability of the SA agricultural sector, respondents identified financial assistance among their biggest needs.
The survey shows that an estimated R3bn is needed in government assistance for the next financial year, if farmers are to maintain their livelihoods and contribution to the larger economy.
In his budget speech last week, finance minister Tito Mboweni indicated that R1.8bn would be allocated to implementing priority land reform projects in the next three years, along with another R3.7bn to assist emerging farmers in acquiring land.
A total of R30.7bn is included in the budget for the development of agriculture as a sector – which is certainly an encouraging move.
However, the responsibility to support agriculture does not rest solely on governmental organisations.
As business we have a duty to contribute to the sustainability of an industry that is integral to our economy and food security.
The Business Chamber has been working to address various concerns that could bring relief to the embattled sector.
Through our water task team, we have commissioned an underground water study conducted by Aurecon.
It is our hope that this project could serve to augment the city’s water supply and provide a larger, sustainable water supply for the metro.
We are also lobbying for the speedy completion of the Nooitgedacht scheme, as it will contribute significantly to the city’s water supply.
Water is a finite resource and we must make sure there is enough for everyone through water-saving practices – which residents can implement as well.
Some of our other task team initiatives could reduce unnecessary expenses in the sector and thereby alleviate the financial pressure.
Through our electricity and energy task team we lobby frequently against unreasonable tariff increases by Eskom, as we did during the most recent round of public hearings by Nersa.
We have also advocated extensively for the development of crucial infrastructure, especially the upgrades currently in the pipeline for the Addo road.
Sanral has taken responsibility for the improvements of this road and we are monitoring its progress.
As this road is a critical link between the Nelson Mandela Bay harbours and exporters – in particular citrus growers – from the Sundays River Valley, we believe our efforts will help to reduce logistical expenses and prove catalytic to the sector in the long term.
Going forward – even if the critical drought outlook listed in the survey changes to a more manageable alternative – we must work together to promote the economic viability of this industry.
Let us stand by a sector that is not only putting food on the table for its workforce, but for the rest of the country and other parts of the world.

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