Wandile Sihlobo: Smallholder farmers needn't be all that small

A recently published research paper by agricultural economists Jan Greyling and Philip Pardey in the Agrekon Journal brings home some key points about the contribution of commercial and smallholder farmers to South Africa’s maize production.

This is timely given the current debates about transformation in South Africa’s agricultural sector, where questions are being raised about the progress of smallholder black farmers.

The paper essentially presents a comprehensive historical picture of South African maize production, and the changes in area planted, spanning the period 1904 to 2015. It includes both commercial and smallholder production, decomposed into their respective output, planted area and yield components.

A brief history

But before delving into the Greyling and Pardey story, let's look at a brief history of maize production, with a particular focus on South Africa.

Maize was domesticated in central Mexico around 1 500 BC. It was then brought to the African continent around 1 500 AD, where it quickly spread to all corners of the continent, in a relatively short period of 500 years. It is now Africa’s most important grain crop.

In South Africa, maize was first introduced in 1655 and has since become one of the dominant food crops. The crop is produced in all the provinces of South Africa, but the most significant producing regions are the Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the North-West provinces, accounting for roughly 87% of overall production.

On average, between 2.5 and 2.75 million hectares of commercial maize are planted in the country each year. This accounts for nearly two-thirds of the commercial area of field crops.

Now back to the Greyling and Pardey story, figure 1 shows the historical perspective up to the recent progress of maize production in South Africa. But I have shortened my data set to 1936/37, instead of starting from 1910 as is the case in the Greyling and Pardey paper.


In the 1936/37 production season, South African farmers planted 2.5 million hectares of commercial maize, which was 7.3 percent above the area planted in the 2017/18 production season (2.32 million hectares). The output that season was roughly 2.5 million tonnes, with a yield of about 1.0 tonne per hectare. However, in 2017/18 production season, the yield was about 5.6 tonnes per hectare, hence production reached 12.9 million tonnes. This clearly shows the benefits of technological advancement and better farming practices.

In addition, South Africa’s smallholder or non-commercial farmers planted 755 366 hectares of maize in 1936/37 production season, and only harvested 218 000 tonnes, achieving lower yields of about 0.3 tonnes per hectares (see Figure 1). In the 2017/18 production season, the area planted by smallholder farmers fell to 314 835 hectares; however, their production increased to 593 975 tonnes. Similar to commercial production, smallholder production was lifted by improvements in yields of 1.9 tonnes per hectare.

Extraordinary changes

While smallholder farmers’ maize yields are still significantly lower than commercial ones, it is still good progress, as they have improved by over six-fold from levels seen in the 1930s (commercials yields have improved by over five-fold).

Most importantly, this means that an improvement in yields in smallholder farming areas could have a notable benefit to farmers in those areas. Achieving this would require better inputs and farming practices. Fortunately, some organisations such as GFADA, Grain SA, AFGRI, Afgrain Food Group and SAGRA, among others, are already doing some work in the former homelands to address lower productivity issues in the farming areas.

Overall, South African maize production has undergone some extraordinary changes over the past century. In 1904, South Africa produced only 328 000 tonnes of maize. By 1935 that had grown to 1.68 million tonnes, increasing to 12.9 million tonnes in 2017/18 production season. Aside from the technological advancements, Greyling and Pardey documented the policies that partially influenced maize production in South Africa over the years for both commercial and smallholder farmers (predominantly black). 

Now, the key question on my mind is whether the decline in maize area planted by smallholder farmers over the years is due to progression to commercial farming or plantings have stopped in some areas as fields are turned into pastures. Further inspection is needed in order to formulate effective policies.

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