Agri export boom must boost local food security

South Africa’s total agricultural exports reached a new record of $13.2 billion (R251bn) in 2023, up 3% from 2022. Our predominant agricultural exports were citrus, maize, apples, pears, nuts, wine, soybeans, sugar, wool, grapes, berries, avocados, and fruit juices, although the market underwent significant fluctuations. For example, fruit prices increased while grain prices declined. Our main export markets were other African countries, accounting for 38%, Asia (28%) and the European Union (19%).

Agricultural imports over the same period totalled around $7bn (R133bn), representing a healthy trade surplus of $6.2bn (R118bn). The surplus indicates the ongoing importance of agriculture to the national economy.

The export performance is remarkable, considering the serious energy and transport logistics issues affecting SA’s economy. If these issues could be resolved, export volumes will be considerably higher. In the meantime, the Departments of Trade, Industry and Competition and Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development have been collaborating with industry bodies to grow the export market. Recent meetings with Saudi Arabia, a major agricultural importer, were geared towards this growth.  


Food security risks


The commercial farming sector is achieving export growth under challenging macroeconomic conditions. However, the agricultural sector overall actually contracted in 2023 by more than 12%, due to increased input costs and lower volumes locally, as well as the commonly experienced seasonal constraints of weather and livestock diseases.

While export performance is commendable, the contraction of the sector puts pressure on smaller-scale farmers who are supplying food to local communities. It also puts upward pressure on food prices for a population already struggling with unemployment, load-shedding and other challenges. 


According to Stats SA, 10 million tonnes of food go to waste every year in South Africa


Another issue is that commercial farmers control and farm most of the available land, while small-scale subsistence farmers make up most of the participants in the sector. In addition to the pressure to maintain food security for South Africa’s population in a tough economy, both sectors are vulnerable to additional threats – especially climate change.


Commercial farmers


  • Produce around 80% of South Africa’s food, so are crucial to our national food security.
  • Are regionally and globally competitive, using a combination of technology and large-scale business practices to increase yields and maintain food security.


Small-scale farmers


  • Contribute significantly to household food security in their communities.
  • Face business and other challenges, including a lack of skills, insufficient capital and inadequate technology and mechanisation.
  • Experience knock-on effects of these challenges on not only food production, but also their ability to fight climate change and manage soil sustainably.

These risks to food production and security are also regional. With sub-Saharan Africa set to see some of the fastest population growth, producing 1 of the youngest populations in the world over the next 20 years, food security and provision will be vital. South Africa’s well-developed commercial farming sector can contribute to food security in the region significantly through increased exports, but the local economy puts domestic food security at risk through a lack of available employment and economic growth, coupled with rising food prices and inflation.  


Solutions for food security challenges


South Africa’s electricity crisis is a major threat to our food security. Load-shedding is not going away in the short term. For your farm to remain a viable agricultural operation, it is crucial that you invest in sustainable alternative power supply.

Solar, wind, and hydro energy systems are all becoming more viable and affordable, either to run your own small-scale farming operations, or on a commercial scale that will allow you to sell excess electricity back to the grid.

Smaller-scale farmers can also contribute to greater domestic food security by adopting the following:

  • Crop diversity
    This is one of the simplest, most cost-effective methods to ensure farming sustainability and resilience. Monocrops are especially vulnerable to changes in climate or soil, while mixed cropping can help repair the effects of over-farming and cut down on your need for irrigation and pesticides.

  • Advice
    You may not be able to invest in expensive technology, but you can consult advisory services that cater to your needs as a small-scale farmer to extend your crop and livestock knowledge. This education on sustainable farming practices might run counter to generations of tradition, but adopting modern agricultural practice is essential if you want to farm sustainably.

  • Crop-strain variety
    Cultivating different genetic strains of the same crop promotes the health, productivity, resilience, and nutritional value of the plants.

  • Reducing food waste
    According to Stats SA, 10 million tonnes of food go to waste every year in South Africa – a third of the 31 million tonnes that we produce annually. This wastage has a negative impact on the environment and food security. The more surplus food that can be recovered and redistributed across the food system, the better. It also improves the supply-side outlook for local producers.

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