Growing flowers in the land of mielies

Chronic joblessness haunts South Africa’s rural reaches. New proposals, while contested, suggest that part of the answer lies in planting new, labour-intensive crops.

Mielies are one of the most land-intensive commodities produced in South Africa. In 2011, just short of 2.5 million hectares of the country were dedicated to farming maize, according to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy. Each of these hectares, however, produced only 0.01 jobs, which means that one person would be employed for every 100 hectares of maize.

The electoral might of white commercial farmers, coupled with concerns over food self-sufficiency, saw the apartheid government dish out considerable financial support for cereal crops and livestock, neither of which need many workers to tend the vast tracts of land they demand. Extensive mechanisation has since resulted in further job-shedding in the production of these commodities.

South Africa’s flowers, on the other hand, took up a comparatively paltry 545 hectares in 2011. But each of those hectares sustained 13 jobs. Flowers are among the high-value crops that create more, better-paying jobs for low-skilled workers, in part because they have been more resistant to mechanisation. Machines, it turns out, are not very good at growing flowers.

Let a hundred flowers bloom

The potential jobs offered by flowers, and other labour-intensive crops such as cherries, avocado pears, mangoes and pecan nuts are part of the reason Nimrod Zalk has argued recently that the potential presented by high-value agriculture to expand employment in rural South Africa has been “hiding in plain sight”.

According to Zalk, a former deputy director-general at the department of trade and industry, where he is now industrial development advisor: “Around 200 000 jobs could be created if we expand our production of high-value, export-orientated crops like flowers, certain fruits and nuts.” A further 100 000 jobs would be created in manufacturing and services.

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Chronic joblessness in South Africa’s former homelands means unemployment in provinces including the Eastern Cape (46.5%) and the North West (46.6%) dwarf the already alarming national expanded unemployment rate of 38.5%. Zalk argues that because the potentially arable land on which these crops might be grown is mostly in former homelands, women living in the country’s most impoverished rural areas would be the main beneficiaries of the 300 000 potential new jobs, which would increase agricultural employment by almost 25%.

Ben Cousins, who holds the SARChI (the South African Research Chairs Initiative) chair in poverty, land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape, says that this is “misleading”. He says the high-value crops advocated for by Zalk require irrigation, but that “not all the arable land in [the former homelands] can be irrigated, mostly because of a shortage of supply of water”.

The industrialisation of freshness

Agriculture in South Africa remains heavy on land but light on labour. On average, only 0.02 workers are employed on every hectare of dairy, maize, poultry, beef, wheat, soybeans, eggs, pork, sheep and canola. According to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, 9 million hectares of land were dedicated to crops like these in 2011.

By contrast, only 0.6 million hectares sustained crops that employ at least one worker per hectare in the same year.

Farming products like deciduous and citrus fruit, fresh vegetables, berries and nuts are 80 times more labour intensive than farming the field crops and livestock that dominate South Africa’s countryside. Flowers, pawpaws, bananas, avocados, pumpkins and cherries are 160 times more labour-intensive.

It’s these disparities that underpin Zalk’s argument for “growing and delivering high‑quality fresh produce onto supermarket shelves on the other side of the world” – what other researchers have called the “industrialisation of freshness”.

Bridging the divide between South African agriculture’s low-employment reality and its high-employment potential will require state support, says Zalk. Investment in irrigation systems, which he feels can mitigate some of the perils of water scarcity, is one area. Development financing is another. It takes up to five years to start picking apples after establishing an orchard. It takes longer for avocados. Farmers will need to be supported in the meantime.

Land and labour

Cousins welcomed Zalk’s differentiation of agricultural production into “particular subsectors or commodities with significant employment potential”, along with some of his specific policy recommendations, such as increasing investment in agricultural research and development.

But he says Zalk’s recommendation fails to consider how to “address the highly unequal distribution of land inherited from the colonial and apartheid past”, and that it ultimately advocates “state support for an already privileged class of commercial farmers”.

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Zalk says that commercial farmers and the department of rural development and land reform, among others, must make “pragmatic bargains” around land reform to unlock rural opportunities. Long-term leases, which he says are one way of unlocking investment in land irrespective of who owns it, is one example.

A failure to take the pitfalls of South African land reform seriously, however, and in particular the outstanding redistribution of land to productive small-scale farmers, says Cousins, means that the recommendations labour under some major blind spots.

Some of the crops that Zalk recommends for policy support, fresh vegetables and some fruit among them, are “suitable for small-scale black farmers producing on land that could be redistributed via land reform”, according to Cousins.

Agriculture needs transformation

He estimated that even more new jobs could be created – up to 1.2 million – if land reform programmes focused on small-scale farming were prioritised in attempts to transform South Africa’s agriculture. Small-scale farmers create comparatively more work than their commercial counterparts.

But the failure to prioritise small-scale farmers and scarce water supplies are only two among a range of constraints on Zalk’s proposal to move towards high-value crops, says Cousins. Others include the climate crisis.

Delivering high-quality fresh produce onto supermarket shelves around the world lends itself to transport-related fossil fuel emissions. While Cousins points to a global shift to rethink the sustainability of such farming systems, Zalk says that South Africa may need to be ready to pay an emissions price for increased employment.

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