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Subsistence farming: an old side hustle at risk

Over the past 15 years or so, rural herds have dwindled from the significant numbers they used to be in, says the author. File

Over the past 15 years or so, rural herds have dwindled from the significant numbers they used to be in, says the author. File

Published Oct 8, 2023


Subsistence farming in rural areas can be classified as the oldest side hustle. If it did not give you extra bucks while you waited for your payday, it most certainly gave you the nutrients you needed without having taken a taxi to town and buying from the local store there.

This side hustle relied primarily on natural resources and had virtually no barriers to entry. A man could till the ground with a herd of cattle from his family kraal, while his wife planted maize or sorghum using seeds they would have preserved from the previous harvest. They would also plant a variety of pumpkins, which they could use to cook a special porridge, slice them and eat them as a vegetable snack, or cook them as the common pumpkin that makes up the Sunday dish generally referred to as the “seven colours”.

Unfortunately, this piece I write here today is more of an obituary of this very ancient side hustle. A drive or walk through the majority of South Africa’s rural areas will not give you the very same image that was common in the early 2000s and the many years before that.

Most tracts of land that used to be red soil with various greens shooting out of it in those days have now become dry land that lays fallow. Many people in these areas do not have what it takes to till the ground, plant in it, weed and prune their plantation before harvesting a bountiful harvest at the end of summer. There began the death of a legendary side hustle.

Over the past 15 years or so, rural herds have dwindled from the significant numbers they used to be in. Some have suffered from various illnesses, or been stolen as stock theft continues to rise unabated in these areas. It is not uncommon to hear that over this period, a few households have lost a dozen cattle each. Some cattle may have been slaughtered here and there, while others may have died in the grazing zones after being attacked by a ferocious snake or hungry wild animal.

In the olden days, cattle were herded throughout the day and brought into the kraal at night. In that way they could be sufficiently attended to. However, the prioritising of school and the seeking of better opportunities in big cities has effectively rendered the livestock unchecked. For those reasons, livestock has over the past years been knocked off as a good investment option and rendered even less economic benefit in most rural economies.

The relegation of subsistence farming to the bottom of the economic value chain has also seen this sector miss out from lifeline investments like knowledge and skills transfers as well as science and technology that could have rescued the sector to the benefit of these local economies.

Rural subsistence farming suffered from the drought seen in the mid-2010s. The situation was worsened by the restricted movements and supply during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

As the entire agricultural sector stares into the eyes of below-normal rainfall in this season, rural subsistence farming stands no chance of making any meaningful economic contributions.

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) at all government levels has made attempts to resuscitate this sector. Traditional leadership has also given land to various co-operatives and households to help mitigate against the economic impacts of Covid-19.

All these have also been frustrated by the lack of basic services like water infrastructure. Most of the rural water infrastructure like pumps are old and unreliable. They break often, take too long to fix but break down again very fast. Sometimes, they cannot be fixed. Being very old, they cannot withstand the demand brought about by a growing population.

Agricultural machinery like tractors have been bought to help these rural communities to at least plant. But they too crumble under pressure. A single tractor has to work the entire municipal area, which is often impossible. They break down a quarter way through the job, take too long to fix, until the planting season has passed by.

Rural areas are the hopes of many who are in urban areas. However, rural areas without functioning subsistence farming offer no hope whatsoever. While the people who live in rural areas work as hard as those in urban areas, despite lacking the best of opportunities, if the country does not rekindle subsistence farming through meaningful and inclusive investments, sufficient resource allocation and smart-service delivery, these areas, their people and our broader economy will certainly be doomed.

And this happening at the time when fuel has increased by close to R5 over the past season, does not spell a good year at all. Well, we should not let this break our spirits. If anything, we must all strive to rekindle the oldest side hustle and grow it.

For most poverty-stricken rural areas, subsistence farming is the fertile ground for rural entrepreneurship, business development and sustainable economic growth.

Given Majola is a reporter at Business Report, who is passionate about agriculture and socio-economic impacts in South Africa.