Food security plan is ‘a step in the right direction’ but could cost billions

Vegetable basket. Picture: iStock
Vegetable basket. Picture: iStock

The government’s plan against hunger, if approved, may cost the already cash-strapped country more than R86 billion over the next five years.

An interdepartmental task team of the departments of performance monitoring and evaluation, agriculture, health and social development recently briefed MPs on progress with the national food and nutrition security plan (2017-2022). The amounts needed for implementation of this plan were staggering.

The figures presented in Parliament had a few MPs in the portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries at the edge of their seats questioning where the money will come from.

The actual plan was less spectacular and role players in civil society were already questioning how workable it will be.

The plan must still be submitted to Cabinet so MPs had the first peek at the proposed costing model for this project. Its aim is to alleviate hunger among 14 million South Africans – a figure based on Statistics South Africa’s statistics on hunger.

Increase food production

Deputy director-general for rural development and environmental affairs in the presidency, Dr Tsakani Ngomane, told MPs the previous costing plan was more than R100 billion and the task team had to go back and cut some activities. The biggest cost driver will be projects to increase food production and access to nutritious and affordable food.

More than R67 billion was proposed to fund this exercise, which will include capacitating and integrating smallholder farmers in local food value chains.

Ngomane explained the aim was to increase food produced by smallholder producers, increase production of aquaculture by smallholder producers and to increase food production by household producers.

“Although food security is the main objective, profitability is also essential for the sustainability of the industry,” Ngomane said.

“There will have to be a special focus on ensuring the affordability of feed and setting up operations so that the food conversion ratio is kept as low as possible.”

Part of this component of the plan was to increase the number of extension officers who are generally regarded as the government’s foot soldiers and the first contact with households, she said.

The plan was to double the number of extension officers who would help capacitate smallholder farmers and households, especially through training. Ngomane said the idea was to also increase food production in households.

“Producers can then produce their own food rather than relying on supermarkets for food.”

The proposed plan also provided for setting up of a multisectoral coordinating council on national and provincial levels to have oversight over and coordinate functions.

Ngomane said to reduce costs, the government was hoping to use sector experts who would work with the councils but they “should be willing to do so for an honorarium payment, rather than full consultant rates”.

The plan also included efforts to promote good nutrition especially among women, infants and children. The estimated cost for this was R7 billion. To communicate the plan and promote its aims, a communication strategy to the cost of R703 million was also proposed.

Show us the money

MPs welcomed the plan in principle because it opened up opportunities to have a much-needed discussion on food security in South Africa. DA MP Annette Steyn, however, reminded the task team food security was also about access to food.

“A third of all food in South Africa is wasted. We have enough food, it’s just not with the people.”

ANC MP Dumile Maloyi, welcomed the plan stating it looked good, but the issue would be implementation and financial constraints.

“We all agree we do not have the money and the possibility of getting it does not exist. They are still looking for money to fund education for the poor and departments are already complaining about money.” Maloyi urged the task team to look at alternative funding models.

Economic Freedom Fighters MP Nazier Paulsen wanted to know if communities affected by these decisions were consulted.

“Are they just recipients or made participants in the processes?”

They promise and promise and promise…

But a member of the Swartland Small-scale Farmer’s Forum, Monica Hendricks, told ParlyBeat all this was news to her. She said small-scale farmers in her area were “struggling to get support from the government right now”.

“We are struggling. We struggle with land, we struggle with access to water. People want to grow their own food and many do but they struggle to market their produce. I mean, nobody really wants to pay for vegetables at a Pick n Pay if you can grow your own food. It is healthier but these departments promise and promise and promise. They promise you the world and then everything just falls flat.”

A community-based agricultural organisation, Abalimi Bezekhaya, which trains and assists micro-farmers in poorer urban areas such as Gugulethu was already putting in the legwork in the fight for food security at the grassroots level.

One of its members, Dave Golding, told ParlyBeat, the need was there now, not over five years. He said in his experience the departments often assisted with resources but there was little training and mentoring or any follow-up process.

“They come and give resources, help with infrastructure and a bit of training and then they disappear. Long-term mentoring is needed but I don’t think there is capacity and that’s why partnerships are so valuable. The organisation is involved in home gardens and community gardens to help people generate income.

“We are involved with between 40 and 60 community gardens where our fieldworkers mentor the farmers. We transport the produce and we buy directly from them. These farmers pay for their own seed. We partly subsidise the manure they need and they can earn up to R6000 a month depending on the size of their garden and how much they put into it.”

Golding said if this was the focus of the government’s proposed plan, it may just be a step in the right direction. Abalimi had been doing it for 35 years with just donor funding and almost no funding from the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, he added.

* This article first appeared in ParlyBeat

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