The contribution of black farmers to food security

More research is needed if confusion is to be avoided when agricultural development policy issues are discussed.

I’ve been getting tweets from folk interested in knowing the share contribution of black farmers to overall agricultural production in South Africa.

The only up-to-date data we have that comes close to responding to this request looks into the separation of key crop production – maize, wheat and so on – into commercial and non-commercial.

However, it still doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to the question as it would be unreasonable to assume that all non-commercial farming is done by black farmers. Granted, a large share might be smallholder black farmers, but there are also black farmers who produce commercially.

The most accurate data I have found regarding agricultural production along racial lines is that of the late Dr George Frederick ‘Frikkie’ Liebenberg’s PhD thesis, which has this wonderful table (featured below) showing the relative contribution of black farmers to national production. Unfortunately, Liebenberg’s dataset ends in 2002.

Here are some key points from Liebenberg’s data:

  • The share of farmed (farmed, not to be confused with owned) area by black farmers was 31% in 2002. This area produced less than 4% of field crops such as maize, wheat and sorghum.
  • Similar to other sectors, the share of the country’s livestock held by black farmers had marginally decreased by 2002, particularly sheep and poultry, which were estimated at 10% and 29% respectively.

While the share contribution by black farmers to agricultural production seems minimal from this data, keep in mind that this was collected 15 years ago. There has definitely been progress in the recent past, driven by both government and the private sector.

The most recent estimates presented by trade economist Sifiso Ntombela of the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) suggest that about 40% of cattle in South Africa is owned by emerging and communal black farmers, and I have highlighted recent progress that has been made in areas such as Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.

Essentially, agricultural economists should in future do a better job of maintaining credible databases of transformation and the progress of black farmers. That way we can avoid confusion when we discuss agricultural development policy issues, which will no doubt need to be addressed in the coming months given our current political and economic climate.

Wandile Sihlobo is an agricultural economist and head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) in South Africa. 

This article was originally published on Agricultural Economics Today here.

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