Agricultural output in 2022/23 was twice as much as in 1993/94, providing an indication of just how much the sector has grown, irrespective of the divergent views on the efficacy of government policies, said Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa.
He said this expansion had not only been driven by a few sub-sectors – livestock, horticulture and field crops had all seen strong growth. Some crops, most notably wheat and sorghum, had declined, but this had to do with changes in agroecological conditions and falling demand, not government policies.
The higher production had been underpinned mainly by new production technologies, better farming skills, growing demand (locally and globally), and progressive trade policy. The private sector had played a major role in this progress, said Sihlobo.
South Africa was the 32nd world’s largest agricultural exporter in 2022 – the only African country in the top 40 world’s largest agricultural exporters in value terms, according to data from Trade Map.
This was made possible by a range of trading agreements that the government had secured over the past decades, with the most important being with the African continent, Europe, the Americas and some Asian countries.
The African continent and Europe now accounted for about two-thirds of South Africa’s agricultural exports. Asia was also an important market.
“The agricultural sub-sectors that have primarily enjoyed these signs of progress in exports are horticulture (and wine) and grains. Broadly, South Africa now exports roughly half its agricultural products in value terms,” said Sihlobo.
In 2022, South Africa's agricultural exports reached a record $12.8 billion (R239bn).
South Africa was ranked 59 out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index, the most food secure in sub-Saharan Africa.
“I recognise boasting about this ranking when millions of South Africans go to bed hungry may ring hollow… However, it is essential to note the lack of access to food that most South Africans face is due to the income poverty challenge rather than lack of availability due to low agricultural output, as is the case elsewhere in other parts of Africa.” he said.
The Global Food Security Index balanced four elements (affordability and availability, as well as quality and safety) to arrive at a rating, and covered matters at a broad national level.
In this regard, South Africa produced enough food to fill supermarket shelves with high-quality products, but still had a long way to go to address household food insecurity, as many households could not afford the food that was available in a way that met their nutritional demands, he said.
He said the gains in agricultural production had also not been equitably distributed across the industry, with growth mainly restricted to organised commercial agriculture.
He said South Africa was a country of “two agricultures” – a subsistence, primarily non-commercial and black farming segment and the mainly commercial, white farmers.
The private sector had also not provided many successful partnership programmes to foster the inclusion of black farmers in commercial production at scale, he said.
“It is no surprise institutions such as the National Agricultural Marketing Council estimate that black farmers account for less than 10%, on average, of commercial agricultural production,” he said.
However, there was anecdotal evidence pointing to a rise of black farmers in some parts of South Africa, such as in field crops, horticulture and livestock in provinces such as Free State, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and other regions.
Employment in agriculture remained robust. There were about 922 000 people employed in South Africa’s agriculture industry in 1994, according to Statistics SA, and in the third quarter of 2023, there were about 956 000 people working in primary agriculture.