Think, talk, grow

2013-05-02 00:00

WE all eat, yet agriculture is one industry that suffers all sorts of economic challenges. Farmers are price takers, yet their produce has created super-rich chain stores and hospitality empires. While some retirees are slowly turning farming into a lifestyle practice, the occupation is unattractive to the young. The fierce battle between production and wastage remains unbalanced. Dropping production levels due to inadequate transitional support is one of the unpopular consequences of land reform. Adaptation to climate change and urbanisation contribute to the conflicts of development. We desperately need game changers to help agriculture overcome these challenges.

Enter the Friends of UKZN Agriculture, who have helped nudge us past another great milestone. An Agricultural Policy Research Unit (APRU) was launched at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on the Pietermaritzburg campus last Friday. The engine behind this development has been Duncan Stewart, synonymous with Lima Rural Development Foundation. Lima — a Zulu verb for ploughing — is a non-governmental organisation established in 1989 that has supported many rural development food production and community infrastructure projects.

Lima’s team has vast experience in connecting rural communities to innovative small-scale food production. Experience tells us that supporting small producers usually attracts a web of competing priorities that are vital for sustainable cropping practice. For instance, these priorities seek to attract scientific innovators, financers, donors, business and academic communities. Innovations include developing solutions in technology and business models that give bigger impact for investments made.

Together with other alumni, Stewart has founded the unit which has been enthusiastically received by dean and head of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Professor Albert Modi, and senior professor in agricultural economics Professor Gerald Ortmann. A collaborative agreement has been reached between UKZN and the Lima Rural Development Foundation, through which Lima provided seed funding for the unit.

Agricultural economics at UKZN has a proud reputation for excellence in agricultural policy research which stems partially from the success of Professor Lieb Nieuwoudt’s HSRC-funded Agricultural Policy Research Unit at the University of Natal from 1984 to 2003. Agricultural economists at UKZN have subsequently built on this foundation, in particular through ongoing research projects that focused on improving the competitiveness of South African agriculture.

Modi sees the connection between the school and the government’s National Development Plan (NDP), which is clearly focused on growing the economy and employment levels. Inclusive rural economies and environmental sustainability and resilience run through the plan. This will be realised by investing in new agricultural technologies and adaptation strategies for the protection of rural livelihoods and expansion of commercial agriculture, as well as improved infrastructure and service delivery.

Taking this to consumers, we need to share the meaning of the bigger challenges facing the agricultural sector. We may be a food and water-secure country, but signs of insecurity are starting to emerge on the horizon. Chronic hunger has been reported in some SADC countries, pushing thousands of poor households into negative coping mechanisms and leaving many children irretrievably affected in the process. Without being nostalgic, we know that every rural household in the past used to have a door-step garden, some livestock and access to communal land for food production. Maize harvest, for instance, used to be consumed until the following planting season. Lima and other non-governmental organisations are making serious contributions to resuscitate this practice. We have seen water-harvesting efforts and many messages about the preservation and sensible consumption of water, but sadly these are totally ignored by wasteful consumers.

The head of the unit, Dr Stuart Ferrer, says it wants to help to solve challenging issues faced by the agricultural sector by linking applied economic research with policy and by engaging actively in debates on provincial and national agricultural policy. The unit will focus initially on land reform and agricultural labour markets. It hopes to attract broad participation and support from the public and private sector as well as from the civil society institutions. The challenges highlighted above provide diversified and attractive career pathways that can contribute to rural development objectives. The Department of Education should be thrilled about this move. Institutions involved in value chains associated with agriculture are likely to benefit. Activities of the unit are likely to span a number of disciplines that will involve a group of academic staff members, including honorary academic staff of the university. We salute the move.

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