Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Picture: Supplied
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Picture: Supplied

Developing an agri-food R&D strategy for SA is vital

By Time of article published Aug 4, 2021

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Thulasizwe Mkhabela

IF SOUTH Africa is to maintain a competitive agri-food sector, there is an ever-present need for augmented knowledge-driven production.

A strong public sector research and development capability must focus on translating public research and innovation investment into growth and development in areas such as health, sustainable and resource-efficient production as well as maintaining focus on leveraging the food sector throughout the value chain.

South Africa should continue to position itself as an international hub where large international companies place their research and development (R&D) investments. However, this requires ongoing joint investments within the existing R&D communities. Furthermore, South Africa’s food research and innovation must be based on a strong international collaboration and focus on talent attraction and retention.

To succeed, South Africa needs to prioritise its limited research and innovation resources optimally. Therefore, the following six key challenges that can be turned into significant business opportunities, if mastered in the right way are proposed as priorities for the medium to the long-term:

Supply of high-quality raw materials in a circular economy.

Products for the global consumer.

Food safety.

Foods for a healthier life (healthy eating).

Efficient and agile production.

Faster and safer to market through utilisation of big data.

Investing in pre-competitive public-private R&D co-operation relative to these enablers will help solve the key challenges, and consequently result in job creation and prosperity not just for the agri-food sector, but also for the entire South African economy and society.

This article is intended to tease out a strategy of knowledge, inspiration and prioritisation that can be used in a wide variety of contexts from the political negotiations of the national budget allocation to the strategic considerations in companies, knowledge institutions and funders.

This strategy proposes some research and innovation challenges that are currently topical in policy discourses. The aim is to instigate prioritisation of investment in R&D benefiting both the broader society and the agri-food sector.

As global exporters, companies in the South African agri-food sector also haves a responsibility to be part of the solution to a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Hence, this article supports and seeks to dovetail with the challenges set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals as illustrated below:

The contemporary paucity of resources and more stringent environmental standards are here to stay. In order to feed a growing population without jeopardising our climate and the environment, there is a need for efficient food production systems (producing more with less) and to ensure a higher utilisation and commercialisation of all products and by-product streams. Furthermore, a strong emphasis on maximising yields and quality per unit is also called for.

The agri-food industry performs well in most aspects related to sustainable production. However, the use of imported inputs such as fertiliser, agro-chemicals and proteins for animal feed remains an issue that needs serious attention and solutions. Bio-refining of green biomass can be part of the solution.

Also, the utilisation of food waste has been put on the agenda. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that approximately 33 percent of all food is wasted. In the developing countries, this occurs in the first part of the value chain. In the rich and developed countries, this takes place in the last parts of the value chain, that is, at retail and consumer levels.

Consumers are at the centre of all food systems and their expectations of food are multifaceted and constantly changing. Being an industry that is exporting to numerous markets worldwide, this presents ongoing challenges as well as opportunities to fulfil the expectations of both individual and global consumers.

A limited understanding of consumer preferences often leads to unsuccessful and costly market entries. To be successful, it is critical to capture and adapt to new market and consumer trends and predict the needs and preferences of consumers and customers of tomorrow, that is, where they can obtain their demanded foods at any time in the desired format.

Solid scientific documentation and the use of big data for data mining are critical in that respect. It also requires studies to clarify what drives consumer purchasing choices, priorities (cultural, sensory), preparation methods, storage and the discarding of food items. Establishing strong interactions with consumers is key in order to reduce the risk of failure when introducing new products and entering new markets.

An efficient agri-food sector is dependent on producers, markets, regulatory frameworks and flexible supply chains that can respond to unforeseen contingencies and volatility leading to changes in business practices. Understanding and reacting to risks by players is key.

WHILE many consumers are critical of today’s food production systems, as they do not necessarily trust large-scale industrialised food production, they do, however, value their produce for being convenient, affordable, widely accessible, tasty and consistent in terms of quality, says the author. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane, ANA.

It should also be noted that distribution patterns, business models and communication are constantly changing in many markets, making it difficult to keep market shares and exploit new market potentials. Thus, reliability is a key driver for developing South African food export, and new channels for communication and distribution must be taken into consideration.

While many consumers are critical of today’s food production systems, as they do not necessarily trust large-scale industrialised food production, they do, however, value their produce for being convenient, affordable, widely accessible, tasty and consistent in terms of quality.

Most consumers go for “clean labels” and try to avoid chemicals and additives. They are concerned about food quality, a concept which has been broadened from “what the product is and does for them” to “how and with what impact and consequences the products are brought about”.

Their concerns may not always be mitigated by more information, and hence other ways of creating a strong link between consumers and the producers is called for, and its name is agri-food research and development strategy.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and who is currently Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

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