Coe In The News

Current food system makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to compete with the established highly concentrated sector

Published July 13, 2016, by Leadership Magazine

A state of food security exists when, as defined by the World Food Summit, “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. In other words, not only is it necessary to provide the population with sufficient quantities of food, but it has to be nutritious food as well.

Under “business as usual” conditions, and setting aside the present drought, South Africa does produce sufficient quantities of food to feed the population. Less satisfactory is the quality of fare on the table. According to Dr Julian May, director of the DST – NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, this has a number of negative outcomes.“What we are having in South Africa now is an increase in overweight and obesity, and that results in an increase in diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Consequently, many people argue that instead of focusing on producing more food, we actually need to have better diets.”

Obesity is not intrinsic to any South African culture. On the contrary, traditional diets contain many healthy foodstuffs—sorghum, for example. However, the global village effect has brought about dramatic change in eating patterns; the masses have switched to fast foods, snack foods and sugary drinks, kick-starting an obesity epidemic.


Our food system is dominated by a small number of very large farms which sell their product to a small number of very large processing companies, who in turn sell that food to a small number of very large supermarket chains

Professor Julian May

According to Professor May, South Africa has a diet very similar to the diet that people have in countries known for high levels of obesity such as the USA or Mexico, where there is high consumption of food that provides consumers with calories but doesn’t provide much in terms of the nutrients that you need to be healthy.

Government is taking the issue seriously. Legislation limiting the amount of salt in processed food has been introduced, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced the intention to impose a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which include still and carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, energy drinks and vitamin waters, sweetened ice tea, lemonade, cordials and squashes.

But doesn’t that amount to putting lipstick on a pig? And how did South Africa get fat in the first place?

“According to one view,” explains Professor May, “we have a food system which is largely dominated by what is referred to as Big Foods, in the same way people talk about Big Pharma. Consequently our food system is dominated by a small number of very large farms which sell their product to a small number of very large processing companies, who in turn sell that food to a small number of very large supermarket chains, so we have an unusually concentrated food system—certainly by any standard in Africa and actually pretty much by any standards in the world. Obviously, those companies’ major concern is going to be profitability.

“Now the kinds of snack food that poor people tend to buy essentially consist of corn that is flavoured and fried in palm oil, providing lots of calories. For example, in the Western Cape, there is a very popular brand called “Spookies”. If you analyse Spookies, you’ll find it makes quite a substantial contribution towards the minimum calories that people need in a day, but in terms of anything else, it’s mostly sodium and fat.”

It seems the food system itself is an unhealthy concentrate – good for fat cats, but deleterious to the interests of the people, who are putting on fat instead of muscle, as well as small-scale agriculture, which is experiencing lean times.

The prevailing food system “makes it very difficult for small-scale farmers to be producing crops and products that will compete with the established highly concentrated sector”. The food companies will always procure ingredients from the cheapest source—the palm oil in a certain product will be sourced from Ghana, while “the corn may be sourced from South Africa but could just as easily be sourced from the USA, which has a massive corn surplus”. In other words there is no guarantee that food “made in South Africa” benefits South African farmers at all.

In summary, “The big food companies are extremely efficient at delivering cheap food, but they are not efficient in terms of delivering food that is healthy. What is more, probably the biggest problem when it comes to food security in South Africa is employment. The present food system isn’t a significant generator of jobs.”

One country where small-scale producers do grow healthy snack food is Ethiopia. A farmer might grow roasted, salted lentils or chickpeas and have them taken to town and sold by his wife. In South Africa, though, “It’s quite hard to imagine such a thing of any small scale production that feeds into fast food. For example, we have done research on so-called walky-talkies, or chicken feet, a popular snack food in townships. Even though it’s an indigenous snack, the chicken feet are not sourced from small farmers but come directly from large-scale broiler production. The benefits may come to the hawker but they don’t go down the value chain to the small farmer.”

In an effort to reverse this invidious state of affairs, the DST—NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security is actively researching and promoting avenues of food production that promise not only to get South Africans eating healthier but also to create the markets that emerging farmers need.

“Researchers have observed that in many other countries in Africa, cow peasare a popular crop and a popular food item, and they’ve also observed that South Africans used to eat cow peas but no longer do.

“The question here is what are the reasons for that and how can we actually introduce cow peas as a crop for small-scale agriculture, given that it’s fit for human consumption, can be used for animal feed, and can be intercropped with other more traditional crops like maize or pumpkins. Specifically, our researchers are looking at varieties of cow peas that have been grown in countries in Africa to the North, examining how they will fit into our more arid conditions and how they can be adapted to production, while looking at what the opportunities are to introduce that crop into the local food system. It’s pointless growing something if nobody wants it.”

To market, to market

It follows from these views that the key to developing a buoyant agricultural space capable of feeding the population nutritiously and generating jobs for emerging farmers is marketing. The launch of the Pretoria Co-op at the residence of Catherine Hill-Herndon, US Deputy Chief of Missions (DCM) in May this year, represented a positive step in this direction.

A first attempt by the USDA to help South African farmers set up formal, direct marketing of high-quality goods, the Co-op will provide farmers with support, training and mentorship as well as to ensure that their produce finds a market. Ultimately, both small-scale farmers and consumers reap the benefits: small-scale farming promises to become more profitable and less wasteful, while consumers stand to save 20-25% on healthy, fresh produce.

According to Hill-Herndon, “We believe that direct marketing of products to consumers offers a value chain that returns higher prices to farmers through the cooperative structure. Similar projects in the US have helped turn smallholder production of food and agricultural products into one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market in the country.”

Farmers can register as Co-op members and shareholders through a shared portal; consumers can register as members and shareholders. The portal can be used to track member contributions and Co-op expenditures; the Co-op forum will facilitate the seeking of advice, mentorship, financing, loans and best practices. The end result is a new method of food production that makes small-scale farming more profitable, reduces food waste and gives consumers access to fresh produce at a saving of between 20-25%. Baskets of fresh produce and other farm-fresh products will be delivered directly to subscribing consumers on a weekly or monthly basis. Expansion plans for regional distribution points and food markets are in the pipeline.

The venture has met with considerable enthusiasm—35 farmers have already committed and 300 consumers in the Pretoria area have expressed interest. Moreover, requests for the model to be replicated have already come from Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Western Cape and 21 other African countries. In short, the initiative promises to expand into a vast network of successful small farmers and healthy consumers.

Founding Co-op member Daniel van Boxel commented, “We hear a lot about a food shortage,” he says. “But in reality, I believe there is enough food for everyone—production and distribution has just not been coordinated effectively enough.

“We need to support our smaller and new farmers to become more productive and profitable, and give consumers access to nutritious food more cost-effectively. The new Co-op model does this.”

This article was originally published by Leadership Magazine and is available here

related Articles

CoE-FS 10th Anniversary Symposium – Opening session

Date: Wednesday, 22 May 2024 Time: 09h00 – 10h00 (SAST) Co-chaired by Professor Julian May (CoE-FS Director) and Professor Lise…

CoE-FS 10th Anniversary Symposium – Governance and policy

Date: Wednesday, 22 May 2024 Time: 10h00 – 12h00 (SAST) Register for Zoom here. Co-chaired by Professor Julian May (CoE-FS…

CoE-FS grantees, researchers take part in the 2024 Montpellier Process

The CoE-FS grantees were joined by students from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Kenya, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, the UK, and…