Food gardens and small-scale farmers key to food system transformation: Dr Naudé Malan

Naudé Malan is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion piece published on the Daily Maverick, 17 July 2019.

Food gardens and small-scale farms are the diametric opposite of large-scale agriculture, and this itself reflects the exclusion that has been effective in land, agrarian and food systems since colonialism.

The most recent General Household Survey (StatsSA 2019) indicated that up to 2.2 million households have recently constructed food gardens at their homes in order to avert food insecurity. It is these farmers who hold the key to food system transformation, and our policy and developmental approaches need to meet them halfway if we want to transform our food system.

The Agricultural Census of 2011 (StatsSA 2011) and the recent GHS indicate that slightly less than 20% of the population is active in agriculture. We can safely say that there are about 2.5 million “agricultural” households in South Africa, but the more recent statistics on the resurgence of food gardens shows that this is fluid and that people move in and out of agriculture in response to poverty. However, this sizable group of farmers has become more differentiated, enabling specific recommendations on their development.

About 2.2 million new “food gardeners” are active in South Africa, and this figure indicates the scale of a budding seed and other input markets. It indicates how many people are in need of training in agriculture, and indicates, roughly as yet, what possible volumes and what kinds of food could be produced by these farmers. These “emergent”, new or “small” farmers can make a significant contribution to our food system, both in food production and in community development.

Many in South Africa, from state to NGOs, see food gardens and small-scale agriculture as relevant to food security. We are also seeing many NGOs attempting to facilitate market access for such farmers. Many want them to upgrade to large commercial farming. It is completely unclear how such small farmers could figure in the attempt to transfer large landholdings to them, as the large landholding and the “emergent” character of the new farmer do not really “fit” each other.

The attempt to increase food security through small-scale gardens is also fraught with danger. The limited size of such operations, plus the fact that they cannot produce grains or meat in quantity, places question marks on this policy approach. We also need to be clear if market access is the right approach, particularly if we take a systemic view of a food system that, even for large commercial farmers, pays very little to the farmer.

Small farmers need to be empowered by creating local food economies, mostly in townships and less than in formal residential areas. This approach, it will be argued, is feasible and can realise many valuable social, economic and environmental outcomes. The idea of a local food economy stands in some contrast to our current conceptions of a farm as a large enterprise, and the long value chains we have constructed for processed food.

We need to understand that the preference for large landholdings is “only” a natural or organic feature of the economic system wherein it figures. Large farmers deliver a product (with no “unique value proposition”) at the lowest cost to food distributors and processors that in turn engenders large supermarkets and, in this way, low prices are assured, through economies of scale and “urban bias” in policy-making.

In this chain, initial processing (placing food in a punnet) often commands higher revenue than food production. This is why all farmers do not do so well in South Africa. Low supermarket prices belie low prices for farmers and here key impacts on farmworkers are felt, as farmers simply cannot pay them a decent wage as they, in turn, receive too little from buyers.

The place a farmer occupies in the food value chain in South Africa should be at our centre of analysis of both land reform and food insecurity in South Africa. These low prices will be even lower for emergent and small-scale farmers, and this immediately calls into question discussions of land reform that do not immediately also discuss the food system in South Africa. The idea of giving them “market access” should also be critically interrogated as it will reproduce the inequities of the system, and this cannot be a solution.

Furthermore, we need to keep in mind that food security will always be achieved through a functional food market and nowhere through the provision of food alone. Food gardens are important as they form the basis of a new production regime for food that could be both highly equitable and ecologically sustainable, but they are not magic bullets that will eliminate food insecurity.

Food gardens are key in a local food economy but, for them to have any effect on food security and on local economies, a greater share of the value chain needs to accumulate in the farming enterprise. This value is the resource that will eventually address food insecurity and economic development. It invokes a vision for the development of emergent farmers that blends a systemic perspective with entrepreneurship and this can innovate in South Africa’s food system.

Farms and gardens always sit within webs of relationships and these need to be completely exploited to ensure viability for local enterprises. Local food production may condition a new food system that could deliver food in different ways with different food security effects.

Small-sale agriculture, as a social transformation strategy, will not necessarily compete with rural agriculture, particularly rain-fed grain and meat production, as small-scale agriculture is most appropriate for “kitchen vegetables” and other speciality crops. In fact, the improvement of diets and general human development through the development of local food economies will expand markets for grains and meat. Most “kitchen vegetables” are already being produced close to city centres, often in indoor-type systems. The emergence of such “local” producers indicates that a change is already underway in the system, and this is where emergent farmers can find a livelihood.

The marginal position of these new farmers or, better, emergent food entrepreneurs is globally determined but this can be changed. There are clear ways we can enable successful entry into the greater food market for such farmers. We need to create business models that enable replicable and profitable units of production. This can take the survivalist sector and transform it into a viable micro-enterprise sector. This needs new business models that enable the farmer to build systems within a survivalist context and move up out of it. Currently, farmers lose much value due to their place in the system and the low capacity of the entrepreneur. In this regard we need to innovate in the business process, the use of networks and the kinds of technology used.

Technology is often focused on large enterprises, but there are numerous examples of appropriate technology for small-scale enterprises, and one only has to look at Backsaver from the Free State to see the huge opportunity here. Organic production methods, highly intensive and at small scale are proven and effective and are inherently safe for urban neighbours. They are less financially intensive and can turn local waste into resources, as it sells produce through the same channels. They are knowledge- and practice-intensive, and this translates to higher employment in these systems. They also have a very low entry cost, as compost can be manufactured yourself for almost no cost. Marketing and branding are not distant elite activities any more and local distribution strategies can be developed that will reinforce enterprise development and the local economy.

Why are we not seriously considering these opportunities to develop emergent farmers? The vision this engenders is one where a local farmer can succeed in producing food for local customers at lower than retail cost. The recirculation of wastes through technologies, either through composting or even biogas production, lowers costs, and this can be done. Marketing can be accomplished by immediate sales to neighbours and here a farmer can capture the transport costs of the competition (as they harvest waste). These channels can develop local “loyalty” programmes that exchange waste for food, and these can offer nutrition education as well. Recycling can be integrated here as well and this points to how a sustainable system can be constructed.

The above is a key example of a “networked” enterprise that is qualitatively different than the linear enterprise that is the staple of enterprise development. It exploits the blind spots of the current food system, and here networks are productive relations that are part of the enterprise’s operations. This example of a true circular enterprise illustrates the sophisticated nature and relevance of such food production systems.

Small-scale technologies can help in packaging and processing the food, making it competitive with factory processing. Such enterprises can build productive relationships with food caterers and local restaurants and develop new supply chains with those who process to the highest degree – caterers and chefs – that will truly invigorate the township economy. The food value chain will be appropriated by local artisans and entrepreneurs and this can bypass the costly distribution networks of large retailers. These productive relations will start accumulating value in townships and lead to the industrialisation of the area. It is here, in the accumulation of value and capital in local townships, where food insecurity, economic development and sustainability can be achieved.

We know that these farmers have received almost no schooling and rudimentary agricultural training. Each owns fewer than 10 stock units. Technology and new marketing systems can change their position in the market significantly. The mobile abattoir systems developed by Meat Naturally enables farmers to produce meat that satisfies all sanitary requirements and enables them to choose their own buyers.

The fact that small farmers are not receiving significant incomes from their animals points to a clear failure in enterprise development in South Africa. Local slaughter can bypass the myriad middlemen in the South African meat system and deliver locally produced meat to local areas. These animals are often free of hormones and antibiotics and their meat is in fact a better product than mainstream slaughtered meat. This is the kind of solution we need to empower emergent farmers in South Africa.

Regarding food production, we need a revolution in low external input farming models. Biological systems have a clear advantage here in terms of cost and efficiency, and they immediately build networks and social capital around operations, which also forms the basis of marketing and sales.

Food waste harvesting will have a definite impact on municipal waste management and build communities through the relations between consumers and farmers. Waste will acquire monetary value. This will make townships a little bit more liveable, and should we be able to combine these with waste up-cycling technology, we can attempt a new approach to waste. Plastics can be upcycled and remanufactured and these technologies are accessible. We forget that this will contribute to the creation of a valuable real estate market in the townships, something that will not happen considering the way waste is simply dumped in open lots.

Finance is another area where great innovations can be made. The fact that emergent farmers are not producing for sale is a great education and incubation opportunity. Traditional financing organisations like the Land Bank cannot accommodate such farmers. Their financial needs will be too small to justify the administrative expense of validating loan applications, and bunches of applications may exacerbate this problem. Hence we need to develop a new financing system, one that can disburse finds from, say, R10,000 to R50,000 quickly. Efficiency might have to wait as we can expect at least 30% defaulters in initial rounds, but such small loans can benefit a great number of emergent entrepreneurs in rapid time, and not burden them with costly fees that are impossible to repay. This might still be cheaper than the administrative costs of large loan schemes.

It also goes without saying that pure grants, often disbursed by the government for questionable business plans, have to stop. We are not arguing against the largesse of the state which may be appropriate in some cases, but the gifting of large sums of money undermines entrepreneurial skills development and attitude, and the development of sound financial systems. It is better to focus on business plans and operations so an enterprise can accept and pay back a loan, than gifting a large amount of money to someone who is already incapable.

Townships are replete with mainstream food retailers, “spaza” shops, and food gardens. Townships, unfortunately, are net exporters of value, and the food system facilitates this. Mainstream retailers (with a hefty share of the producer price and the market in general) in fact extract value out of townships (and “suburbs”) which would be acceptable had there been enough jobs available to make up for the difference.

Food is produced by farmers, but the greatest share of the benefit of retail lies with supermarkets, who further repatriate their profits. The feedback loop to residents is just too tenuous to accumulate any real value in townships and bad diets contribute even more.

However, we can change townships to be a net creator of value if we have the means to enable smaller farmers to supply townships at lower prices than we see in supermarkets. Lower distribution costs and local processing can ensure this.

The processing of locally produced foods in the spaza shops and fledgling industries that we do find in townships is very important. Currently, technologies are becoming cheaper and more accessible and this invokes the possibility of local production, branding and distribution. This will create a local food system. The feedback loops in this system will be significant and can build greater cohesion between people and farmers, and could lead to new industries in townships around the processing of food that will generate great value for these areas. The point is to let this value circulate in the township as much as possible before it leaves the area. This means we need to take seriously politicians’ calls for township industrialisation, and food could be a focus area for this.

Local industrialisation can be enhanced by a clear system of innovation for the township and emergent enterprises. Newer technologies, some from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, enable significant production volumes for smaller-scale operations. These systems, hydroponics and aquaponics can be constructed indoors and also on rooftops, and can enable substantial production in local areas. They are also open to ICTs and computerisation. Technology will enable townships to capture a greater share of the value of the food market. Further technological adoption, design and development can enable limited spaces to become productive. Productivity will include a reference to the whole value chain, and not only volumes, as savings in transport, packaging and retail can be captured by the farmer themselves, making a small-scale operation viable.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Dr Naude Malan
Dr Naudé Malan
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