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Small-scale farmers are extremely vulnerable to the covid-19 pandemic, but their role in a sustainable rural food system is crucial. Hamlet Hlomendlini, senior agricultural economist at Absa, argues that we can’t afford not to invest in this farming sector if we want a food secure future.

The commercial agricultural sector in South Africa has shown an incredible resilience through a number of unfavourable and extremely challenging events, including severe droughts and biosecurity issues.

Even now, where the covid-19 pandemic is profoundly disrupting the global food supply at nearly every level, our large-scale commercial sector is showing great resilience as commercial producers continue feeding the nation and keeping the agricultural economy going. As such, while the national economy is expected to contract by 10% this year, the agricultural economy is expected to grow by between 6 and 10% in the same period.

While we must celebrate the success and acknowledge the importance and strong resilience of our large-scale producers, it is equally important that we acknowledge the crucial role our small-scale producers play for the national agricultural economy and rural communities in particular.

Small-scale farmers are a crucial part of the food value chain in South Africa, as well as a critical element of the rural communities’ food system. However, their resilience is being sorely tested, and a lot of help will be needed to help them survive through the pandemic and be able continue producing thereafter.

Unlike large-scale farmers who may be able to weather the covid-19 shocks, small-scale farmers may be under enormous pressure due to the fact that they are highly vulnerable to crisis as a result of their limited access to resources, credit and basic healthcare facilities. For small-scale farming communities, the covid-19 impact is exacerbated by the fact that basic preventive measures such as regular hand washing, social distancing and self-isolation pose a unique challenge. This is highlighting the potential public health crisis awaiting rural South Africa and rural farming communities.

As the number of covid-19 positive cases continue to surge across the country, measures will need to be taken by governments and businesses to protect the communities. Equally, mitigating measures to ensure a sustainable food system by small-scale farmers in the post-crisis period is of paramount importance. It is therefore crucial that we address fragmentation and industry barriers small-scale farmers often run into, such as unfair access to land and water markets, agri-infrastructure decay, biosecurity issues and rising input costs.

In addition to removing industry barriers, as we build the “new normal” under the covid-19 pandemic, we will need to be innovative in our thinking and ensure that our efforts to rebuild are sensitive to the needs and circumstances of small-scale farmers in our country. In this way we can protect and enhance the resilience of small-scale producers, while also taking steps to ensure future systemic resilience than can help them weather the crisis and accelerate the recovery process. Post covid-19 agricultural policies must include these imperative points if we are to build a resilient small-scale commercial agricultural sector post the pandemic.

Lastly, we are all aware that financial institutions are reluctant to provide finance to the small-scale agricultural sector due to the risk attached to small-scale farmers—lack of secure land tenure and proven financial records being the key impediments. However, as the covid-19 pandemic continues to bring havoc to our economy and health systems, it is crucial that we prevent it from plunging millions more people into hunger, particularly in rural areas. Small-scale farmers can help in this regard if we work with them and invest in their activities.

There is therefore a great need for government, financial institutions, local agribusiness and international organisations (where possible) to closely work together to create funding models that fit the needs of small-scale farmers. This must be done with the purpose of creating resilience in the small-scale agricultural sector and ensuring that rural food systems continue to function efficiently and effectively post the pandemic.