Farmers in 2023 faced severe headwinds: power crisis, diseases, ports – Agbiz

Load shedding disrupted South African farmers’ irrigation schedules. File

Load shedding disrupted South African farmers’ irrigation schedules. File

Published Dec 12, 2023


The intense and persistent load shedding right from the start of this year was a significant challenge for South Africa’s agriculture and agribusinesses, but next year the industry would have to refocus on the Master Plan, Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) chief economist Wandile Sihlobo said yesterday.

He said in crucial field crops, roughly 20% of maize, 15% of soybean, 34% of sugar cane, and nearly half of wheat were produced under irrigation. In red meat, poultry, piggery, wool, and dairy production, electricity was also heavily used across various processing activities.

“Similarly, agribusinesses and other food-producing businesses faced similar challenges in various downstream processing activities, such as milling, bakeries, abattoirs, wine processing, packaging, and animal vaccine production. Exporting agribusinesses, especially those where delays can be costly, such as fruits, red meat, and wine, were also worried about the port activities,” Sihlobo said.

In the first quarter of the year, the economic impact of load shedding was felt across the food, fibre and beverages value chains.

“Primary farmers and businesses searched for capital to invest in their own energy generation, and some experienced losses in their stock. In addition to the private efforts, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Eskom management and organised agriculture formed an Agricultural National Energy Task Team. This task team introduced interventions to ease the load-shedding burden on farmers, such as load curtailment, expansion of the diesel rebate to the food value chain, and, most recently, the Agro-Energy Fund,” he said.

The fact that South Africa was also in a La Niña rainy season, in crops and horticulture, helped to ease the demand for regular irrigation.

“Through these efforts and heavy investment in renewables and other energy generation measures, South African agriculture, along with the food, fibre and beverages value chains, managed to minimise the damage of load shedding and ensured a consistent supply of high-quality food for consumers,” he said.

Agbiz said that the second challenge was animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, which put the pig industry under additional pressure.

Avian flu hit more than a hundred commercial poultry facilities, leading to significant losses in parent stock for breeders of layers and broilers, thus leading to imports of fertilised eggs to rebuild the parent stock flock decimated by the disease.

“The financial impact of this outbreak is evident in the recent losses announced by the major producers and the price increases of some products from a consumer perspective,” he said.

Regarding the cattle industry, the financial impact was also severe, and South African cattle products exports to some markets were suspended.

Agbiz said South Africa’s biosecurity breaches signalled some serious capacity challenges in farm biosecurity measures and the country’s veterinary and related support services.

“This is mainly in the laboratories, control of the movement of livestock and vaccine production. Therefore, the South African government and organised agriculture and industry bodies should work closely together to address the country’s biosecurity challenges as they persist.”

Sihlobo said the congestion at the ports was another aspect that dominated the conversation.

“This is an area that needs urgent intervention to support the growth of the sector. South Africa’s agricultural sector is export-oriented and depends on efficient and effective ports,” he added.

Sihlobo said these factors also diverted attention from implementing fundamental policies and programmes such as the Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan, and the stakeholders suddenly had to be in “crisis” mode instead of thinking about the long-term growth prospects and interventions to support such a vision.

“Going into 2024, the industry will have to refocus on the Master Plan and resolve the above-mentioned constraints, as it remains relevant and necessary to support the inclusive growth of South Africa’s agriculture,” he said.