Can attracting more young people to agriculture naturally solve land reform question?

2018-05-22 15:50

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While politicians are fighting over how to best go about land reform, there seems to be a much simpler, organic way to achieve this: by enabling more young, black people to enter agribusiness.

While changing the demographic makeup of farmers, this will also help solve South Africa's massive youth unemployment challenge, experts on a Nation in Conversation panel at the Nampo Harvest Day agricultural show in Bothaville have said.

"It's a fallacy that young people don't want to be involved in agriculture. But there is a problem with the image of agriculture. Young people think a black person cannot be a commercial farmer, because currently there's a white face there. That image is very big among young people," Hamlet Hlomendlini, chief economist of AgriSA, said.

But handing young people land and leaving them to their own mercy is certainly not the answer. Like in any other business, proper training and experience are key to being successful at farming. This starts with attracting the right young people to the industry.

"The agriculture sector is shocking at marketing itself," says Anthony Goble, AgriSA's young farmer of the year.

"When I went to high school, getting an agriculture degree wasn't advertised, it wasn't appealing. The business world was the sexy place to go. I believe, if you have a thriving industry, it will attract more young people. But if people are always fighting about politics and reading about how farmers struggle because of the drought, young people will be deterred to come.

"I've just employed three BSC Agric students just out of university and they are highly impressive. They don't have experience, but they are really hungry to learn. You hear so often that the youth are lazy, they don't want to work. But there's an insatiable appetite to get a hold of what's going on."

'Farming has become highly technical'

Dr Dirk Strydom, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State, says the notion that a farmer is someone who sits on a tractor with a plough at the back should be abandoned.

"Farming has become highly technical. And that's what young people love and are driven by. That's where the image of agriculture is going, and we should promote that.

"We should also stop thinking of farming as just the primary production process. The real low hanging fruit in terms of job creation is in the value chain."

The trick might be to stop referring to the industry as agriculture and farming, and instead as agribusiness. Big farms now employ people in HR, finance, IT and a host of other professions. The challenge is to channel young people in these fields into the sector.

Another hurdle is the lack of proper training and experience for young people who want to enter agribusiness.

"What has unfortunately happened with higher education is that we have many people with degrees, but they're unemployed. There's a lot of theory being taught at universities. The universities have become irrelevant," political analyst Mpumelelo Mkhabela said.

"When the government converted technikons into colleges, they removed a huge number of people from the private sector from the councils. Now the university councils and senates are populated by political deployees. Those very same people are promising young people jobs. The question is, who is going to actually give these jobs, because they've kicked out the private sector from influencing the right qualifications that the sector needs."

'We need to focus on education'

So, what can young people do to get access to the industry?

"The industry has to find ways to give people experience first. Land is an asset. If you don't have the experience to work with that, you're being set up for failure. So, the real discussion needs to be about how do we give young people access to experience," Nono Sekhoto, a young commercial farmer from Senekal in the Free State, said.

According to Mkhabela, many farmers are incubating young people, but it's not being done at scale.

"It's small projects, here and there. We need to focus on education. Take the technical colleges, convert them to agricultural colleges and let the big private companies run those colleges in a 50/50 partnership with government, so that they can inject their expertise and provide tenured lectureship. The government can provide the facilities."

Hlomendlini says he gets emails from young people who want to know where they can get land because they want to farm.

"When I ask them what experience they have, they don't have any. The land comes last. It's the experience and the training that come first."

Read more on:    nation in conversation  |  agriculture  |  land reform

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