Post-Covid Karoo a powerhouse in the making
A boom in “low-viral tourism” is likely to be one of the trends that emerges when the dust settles on Covid-19 — and the Karoo is perfectly placed to capitalise on that opportunity.
That’s the view of hydrogeologist, community activist and sustainable development practitioner Dr Stefan Cramer, who spent three years in Graaff-Reinet as science adviser to the Southern African Faith Communities Institute.
Speaking from his hometown of Goslar in Germany, from where he still closely monitors the Karoo, Cramer said the virus had highlighted long-standing problems but had also thrown up multiple sustainable development opportunities which collectively could galvanise the struggling region’s struggling economy.
He said joblessness had risen sharply under the lockdown, with some farm workers being laid off, the tourism industry on its knees and the little manufacturing of agricultural products that was happening having ground to a halt.
The burning question now was how to kick-start the economy once the lockdown was lifted.
“One thing is clear, the return to ‘normality’ cannot mean returning to the ways of the old that created the problem in the first place.
“Becoming resilient to such global disruptions will be the key to success in the future. No longer will global supply chains be seen as an advantage.
“The coronavirus could herald a new wave of eco-tourism creating the potential for the Karoo to be marketed as a ‘low-viral’ destination, capitalising on its wide open spaces and isolated establishments.
“Customers will be more wary of global travel and will be looking for safe and accessible domestic tourism targets.
“Many Karoo farms have already discovered agritourism as a valuable sideline business and this activity can be marketed much more efficiently.”
Working in parallel with improved access to broadband internet services, small Karoo towns could also become attractive hubs for digital work, he said.
“There will be an acceleration of digital marketing channels and the Karoo needs to position itself for this change.”
Companies that were used to working with global supply chains had discovered their vulnerabilities and would now be looking for improved local produce markets, he said.
“Most industries here in Germany had to close down during lockdown because their supply chains are so intimately linked to ‘just-in-time’ production and delivery that the slightest hiccup at the production stage or in the transportation system can lead to factory closures. Many may not survive.
“By the same token, farmers in the Karoo cannot get their farm machinery repaired at present as vital spare parts are not available from overseas producers.
“For a resilient farming sector, local or at least national production of essential tools and equipment is vital.”
Cramer said though there would be a cost attached to losing global supply chains, it would be critically important to focus locally instead.
“The cost of not having such essential national capabilities is higher.
“The shift in strategy will also lead to better job retention and skills development locally.
“Local machine shops in the Karoo today are mere sales agents.
“They will have to recover the capability to produce essential tools and items locally to be more resilient.”
The failure of these programmes meant that jobs in agricultural were being lost every day, and this trend needed to be turned around.
“There are large untapped resources for rural employment. Large Karoo farms are today just mono-cropping industries specialising in wool and meat.
“Traditionally, there were thousands of jobs in local food production, even in the Karoo wherever there was enough water and good soil, but today these farms depend on long-distance shipping of even essential vegetables.”
Agriculture jobs were being shed because of tenancy rights, he said.
“If land reform and resettlement could be done sensibly, small local business centres could spring up for marketing of local produce.”
When the lockdown was lifted, electricity load-shedding would likely start again, he said.
“This is a good chance for the Karoo to capitalise on its vast potential for renewable energy.”
Graaff-Reinet Economic Development Forum chair attorney Derek Light said he agreed with all of Cramer’s points.
He said the touchstone for the town going forward would be to maximise the use of local assets and become self-sufficient.
At the heart of this drive was the planned 66ha giant flag created from indigenous plants which would be visible from space and which would include a four megawatt solar panel plant, he said.
“An initial agreement has been reached with potential developers who would establish this plant. Once completed it will be adequate for Graaff-Reinet’s electricity needs.”
He said the project had been given an extra boost by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement, in his state of the nation address, that municipalities should be allowed to purchase electricity from independent power producers, and the amendment to legislation that was under way to allow this to happen.
“We need the same regulatory changes to allow us to develop the economy, not at the expense of communities or the environment, but to create a climate for innovation and local investment.”
Beneficiation of local products would be a key element in the transformation of the Karoo economy, he said.
“We have a variety of raw products, from wool and mohair to manganese and iron ore, which at the moment we’re just shipping out.
“We’re going to need to start manufacturing our own products, thereby creating massive employment.”