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In the Face of a Pandemic: The AgriFood Ecosystem in South Africa

Never before have policymakers been faced with the complex conundrum of balancing between saving the lives of thousands of South Africans and the complete devastation of their livelihoods. Yet, here we are in the 8th week of lockdown and over 15, 000 people infected with the novel Coronavirus, with grim prospects of an increasing number of infections and fatalities, as well as an economy projected to shrink to the tune of at least 5% in this fiscal year.

All aspects of our lives have been impacted in one way or the other by the Coronavirus scourge. The agrifood ecosystem is no different. It goes without saying that in any pandemic, the provision of food is of paramount importance, right alongside the provision of health care. Governments have made attempts to disrupt the ecosystem as little as possible in their efforts to flatten the curve of infections and manage the Covid-19 pandemic.


South Africa’s local food system

South Africa sits in the fortunate position of having a world-class national food system, thus is largely self-sufficient in terms of food production, and will in all likelihood remain so in this pandemic and beyond. While highly productive, the food system is characterized by high levels of concentration, with 96% of farming units (Census 2011) falling in the SMME category as per the Department of Trade and Industry’s definition (agricultural operations with a turnover of R35 million and below). This positions South Africa as a nation of relatively small-scale family farms, with over 3 million farming units considered subsistence in nature.

Although it isn’t necessarily production that has been negatively impacted by Covid-19, farmers have and still do experience the repercussions of the pandemic. This is the experience reported by Mbali Nwoko of Green Terrace (PTY) Ltd, who notes that “At the start of the lockdown, Market Agents from Fresh Produce Markets across South Africa confirmed a reduction in sales and market activity because of restrictions in movement.” This is compounded by the sudden and total closure of the hospitality industry.  She shares the sentiment that this, as well as closure of restaurants and school feeding programmes, has resulted in a marked reduction in demand for produce.

The ensuing price pressures and oversupply of produce will put farmers’ financial situation in a precarious position, risking discontinuation of operations due to questionable financial viability. This may be exacerbated by other factors including a decline in the economy thus reducing buying power, difficulty accessing farming inputs due to logistics challenges, as well as potential Coronavirus infection of essential staff on farms.


An opportunity in the making

Despite the uncertainty that has been created by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are some positive takeaways for the agrifood ecosystem. Coenraad Fraenkel of Agrimotion Consulting shares that it is in this time where introspection is necessary so that producers can build resilience into their operations to be prepared not just for pandemics, but also other shocks since we never know when natural disasters will strike. Starting from the choice of produce we invest in, that can be tolerant to our climate, efficient with the natural resources at hand and strategic in terms of international markets.

Coenraad shares a story of his childhood in a history class where he was in a group that needed to outline the positive effects of war. It was in his distress at this oxymoron that he realised that it is in times of crisis when we learn to be resilient. That when we are not pushed, we become complacent with systems that work, but are inherently broken. He shares that this is an opportunity for us to leverage our strength as a country and continent, and secure a better future for the agrifood ecosystem going forward.


In relation to global food systems

It is perhaps South Africa’s participation in the global agrifood ecosystems that has experienced a more marked impact, ironically both positive and negative. Most notably as a direct result of the system’s reliance on the logistics sector, which has been extremely hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Africa is a net exporter of agricultural produce to the tune of close to R80 billion. The highest earner among all agrifood exports is citrus, making South Africa the second largest exporter of citrus after Spain. Driving through Marble Hall and Groblersdal, in the South of the Limpopo province, one can see even in the midst of Level 4 lockdown, hundreds of farm workers tending to orchards in peak harvesting and exporting season.

According to the Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa reported in the May 8 issue of Farmer’s Weekly, there has been an incredible increase in global demand for South Africa’s citrus, with double the amount of lemons shipped compared to the same period in 2019. Besides increased demand due to health benefits, this is partly due labour challenges experienced by major producers such as Spain and Italy as a result of travel restrictions in the face of an enormous infection and fatality burden in both countries.

On the other hand, South Africa is also an important exporter of wine. Although export restrictions have been lifted in Level 4 lockdown, the risk of loss of market share in global markets, as well as, local restrictions in the sale of alcohol remain a concern for the sector. Other “non-essential” agri produce like wool, cotton and hides have experienced similar challenges.


The role of agritech in the pandemic

Of course the impact of Covid-19 on primary production as the main driver of the agrifood ecosystem, will invariably have follow-on effects on innovation and technology in the sector. Most notable in more developed countries, is an apparent over-reliance on migrant farm labour, which has posed a significant risk for producers, who now suddenly find themselves without the necessary means to tend to fields and harvest.

This has brought into sharp focus the need for in-field robotics and farm automation at a far greater pace than was previously necessary.

South Africa being a net importer of agritech, will invariably be affected by global trends in technology adoption. However, unlike more developed countries, South Africa has an abundant local labour force. Firms such as Agrimotion Consulting believe that solutions must be customised to our context such that alongside bringing efficiencies and building resilience in production, producers are also able to meet their obligation and desire to provide much needed employment for the masses.

This nuanced approach, plus building relationships of trust with producers, has resolved challenges with agritech adoption among clients, helping them recognise potential they themselves didn’t know they have and realising the incredible opportunities that are inherent in highly labour intensive, and globally strategic sectors such as citrus.

The Coronavirus has fast tracked local agritech innovations as well. During lock-down, restrictions on public gatherings have meant that livestock auctions and fruit markets now have a limited number of buyers who can attend. According to Russel Luck, CEO of SwiftVEE, “One of the major ways to remediate this is by using online channels to enable buyers to participate remotely, where real-time internet auctions allow buyers situated anywhere in South Africa (or abroad) to bid for and buy livestock or fruit without breaching restrictions.

SwiftVEE, which is a livestock online auction and sales platform, has seen an incredible surge in uptake since the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Africa. They grew from 12 auctions in Q1 2020, to bookings of 160 auctions for Q2. Russel added that “buyers and sellers have been forced into the digital world due to COVID, but having experienced the benefits of technology they are bound to continue transacting digitally in the future. All business sectors will continue to migrate towards digital channels. The global Pandemic has merely accelerated this opportunity by 10 – 15 years.”


Innovation support and investment

The Covid-19 pandemic is a real opportunity for ecosystem developers and investors to adopt more proactive approaches by focusing on innovations that enhance several areas of concern in food systems, including production of more nutritious foods, improved inclusivity, more sustainable use of natural resources, increased economic efficiency and enhanced incomes for smallholder family farms.

This will not only serve to leapfrog agrifood into the next industrial revolution, but will also support the poverty alleviation and global food security aspirations of the agrifood ecosystem. Moreover, these approaches will ensure more resilient and sustainable operations, meaning that assets will be more prepared and secure against inevitable global shocks including climate change.

In South Africa, several financing measures have been put in place to shore up agribusinesses in these difficult times. These include government funding schemes for smallholder farmers, philanthropic interventions, bank guarantees, unemployment insurance, and tax relief measures.

Where we must be vigilant is to not over-focus on protecting businesses that are bucking under the pressure, at the expense of supporting and investing in new businesses that are innovating and bucking the status quo. What is clear is that financing and investment models need to be more “flexible” in Mbali’s words, to help agripreneurs not only swim in these choppy waters, but also ride the wave of the new normal.


In the end…

There is no doubt that Covid-19 will leave an indelible mark on how industries operate. Agriculture and food production are not in the least immune. What is obvious is that in a world where industries are defined as either essential or non-essential, AgriFood sits right at the top among the most essential of them all, beyond the function of feeding the population.  It is no longer business as usual, and Coenraad reminds us that in all this, we must never forget to remain compassionate and bring humanity back into innovation.

My take is that South Africa, even with the many challenges plaguing food value chains, has struck a nice balance with a locally oriented food system coupled with significant participation in the global food system, or what is now referred to as a “glocal” approach. Many other countries will need to seriously evaluate their balance in this area sooner than later, if they are to remain food secure in all manner of global shocks.

On a side note: Business Insider South Africa reports that Pineapple sales have doubled between March 2020 and April 2020 and have gone up 200% in price compared to the same time in 2019. Thanks to the national lockdown, the sale and transportation of alcohol is prohibited, thus the popular Pineapple home brew has skyrocketed demand for the fruit.

It seems even when all else fails, the farmer remains once again the trusted and reliable friend.



About the Contributor

Flo Mosane, Director of Future Agro Challenge South Africa is an entrepreneur, AgriFood Ecosystem Developer, investor, and an International Premier Partner for Stone Creek Global.

Photo courtesy of Coenraad Fraenkel: CEO Agrimotion Consulting – South Africa

Bringing Agripreneurs Closer to Policymakers

With the aim to bring agripreneurs to the frontline, this year the Global Agripreneurs Summit had the honor to bring forward policy makers including His Excellency Mario Arvelo, Chairperson of the Committee of the World Food Security and His Excellency Dr. Theo De Jager, President of the World Farmers Organisation.

Holding a roundtable designed to create a collaborative to give birth to proposals that could bring forward result-oriented policies for the positive advancement of agrifood innovation, with discussions that included agripreneurs from over 60 countries across 5 continents, as well as, impact makers.

The discussion aimed at providing suggestions for policies that could facilitate the education of the general public on how innovation and technology can revolutionize the food supply chain and address global food challenges.  Influential policy makers and prominent members of the global agrifood innovation community shared cases, approaches, examples, best practices and proposals on the types of motives needed to create a roadmap for positioning agricultural innovation as a national agenda.

A position paper is in the process of being created to bring forward further discussions around these matters.



Emma Weston Conducts World’s First Live Settlement via Blockchain

Emma Weston had other plans for her career, neither agriculture or technology were part of her foreseeable future. She studied law at the University of Melbourne, and worked in private practice after graduating, but quickly realized becoming a partner in a law firm didn’t feel right for her.

Her path changed with a phone call from a recruiter inquiring her interest in a role as an in-house counsel at the Australian Wheat Board (AWB).  The organization held the export monopoly for wheat, and the domestic market had been deregulated a few years earlier. The government would no longer guarantee wheat payments to farmers and it had to privatize.

After three years in the legal team at AWB, Weston moved into management and worked in various positions. This gave her an understanding of all aspects of the industry.  Weston first met her husband and business partner Bob McKay, who comes from a farming family, he managed the domestic trade division at AWB. After the complete deregulation of Australia’s wheat market, Weston joined McKay’s company Agfarm with a view to growing it from a small grain agency to a grain broker representing farmers, before moving into finance.  The company was later sold.

A few years later, the pair partnered with a former employee and farmer Ben Reid to start AgriDigital – a technology company leveraging their expertise across the whole supply chain.

Australia is a leader in blockchain – something that can be partly attributed to the Australian Securities Exchange replacing its current settlement system (CHESS) with blockchain-enabled software.

In December 2016, Weston’s company, AgriDigital, conducted the world’s first live settlement of a physical commodity via blockchain. Also known as distributed ledger or shared ledger technology, blockchain records all transactions for an asset in a new type of database that can be shared with many parties, but never changed or deleted.

Each record, or transaction, is entered into a ‘block’ and as more transactions occur, each block is chained on to the previous and subsequent blocks, forming a full and complete record. It also allows smart contracts, where the terms of the contract are recorded in computer code and able to auto-execute on the shared ledger.

Weston believes blockchain has the potential to make trade more efficient, reduce fraud and make it easier to trace food through the supply chain.

Emma Weston will join us at the Global Agripreneurs Summit 2018.  Pre-Registration is Open, seats are limited.

FAC 2015 Champions share their story of success!

Skymatics started out as a small drone based media company in the small country of Bermuda.  We had a big idea to use our drones for a more technical purpose so we came up with a plan for branching out into the construction and agricultural industries. We took our idea and applied for the Future Agro Challenge as a way to present our new vision to see if we were on the right track and to our surprise we won! We’ve continued on since then and haven’t looked back.

Since early 2017, Skymatics has taken on a few private investments as well as begun trials of some of our crop analysis services for a number of large insurance companies throughout the US and Canada.  A US office is next on the agenda with intentions to expand globally, first taking on Europe and South America.


How It All Began…

Jamillah Lodge, Business Development Officer at the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation, encouraged the firm to enter the Athens competition with their “cutting edge technology in robotics, engineering and computer software and applying it in diverse ways to aid in agricultural land management to monitor large tracts of farmland for moisture and nutrient content and instantly conveying this information back to central control stations.

The Athens event attracted entrants from all over the world, including Germany, Bulgaria, Morocco, Algeria and Denmark.

Speaking exclusively to The Royal Gazette, co-founder Connor Burns said: “We were pretty excited — we didn’t expect to win. We thought we would be a contender and big competitors in the field would win, but we ended up winning.”  Having taken top honours against global competitors is something that all Bermudians can be proud of!

The two Bermudian entrepreneurs were on cloud nine after their pioneering aerial photography business snapped up a top prize at FAC Global Championships 2015 in Greece. Connor Burns (left) and EJ Burrows were the first Bermuda entrants in the International Future Agro Challenge (FAC) at Industry Disruptors in Athens and their Bermuda Aerial Media and subsidiary firm Skymatics took the top prize, including 7,000 euros in funding over a field of ten.

Lodge states, “their win is the realisation of a personal goal that I have had since becoming involved with Global Entrepreneurship Week — to get our local entrepreneurs international exposure so that they can increase their opportunities for success.”

Attending the FAC really helped us see where we stood in relation to other startups in the industry, winning the FAC Global Championships also gave us the motivation that we were on the right track!

Their win was just the start, having received credibility and media attention the founders set out to expand their business into new heights.  EJ Burrows relocated to Canada setting up an office and everything has kicked off ever since!

Our vision for what we’ve done so far and what we plan to do in the future came from an in depth look at what our potential customers would need, what would make their lives easier and would pay for. You need all three of those things to have a successful product.

Claire Reid conceptualized Reel Gardening at the age of 16

Reel Gardening is a South African Social Enterprise that manufactures a patented biodegradable, pre-fertilised seed tape that enables people with little knowledge or resources to plant successfully. The Reel Gardening Seed Tape holds seeds at the correct distance apart and anchors seeds at the correct depth for optimum germination. All you need to do is make a furrow in the soil, plant the tape, water and watch it grow!

The concept of Reel Gardening was developed by Claire Reid at the age of 16 in response to the issues she faced when trying to grow her own organic vegetables at home to sell to her parents for additional pocket money. She felt overwhelmed when having to choose the correct seed and fertilizer for her region and month of planting. She was then angered by the volume she was required to purchase even though she only had a few square meters available to plant.  But it was only when she was sitting in the soil with a tape measure between her knees failing to get the seed to remain in the ground at the correct spacing did she ask for help.

Meggie, the family’s housekeeper, came to Claire’s aid and began to share her personal planting story which involved little access to water and the inability to read the instructions on the seed packet.  Meggie said that she had failed at her first attempt at growing her own food which saw her utilising her little resources looking after what turned out to be weeds. This lead to Meggie never wanting to attempt to grow her own food again. Claire decided in that moment that she wanted to create a simple solution that would make growing vegetables simple, fun and successful for everyone, regardless of access to land, time, education or water and Reel Gardening is that solution.

The Reel Gardening team is made up of 7 people, all based in Johannesburg, South Africa, 6 of these people are women, 3 of whom are previously unemployed mothers who we have upskilled to manufacture the product in our in house workshop.

They also have a team of 6 national trainers who we have upskilled through a train the trainer programme and have equip with tablet technology.

Passionate about giving back in South Africa. For every garden in a box sold through the Girl Scouts of America, Reel Gardening will donate seed tape to the community projects they support in of South Africa. Reel gardening equips anybody, with any level of gardening knowledge or education to grow their own food successfully. Reel Gardening makes growing quick, fun and easy. A garden is a gift of growing, health, connecting to the earth and fresh food. It should not only be reserved for those who can afford to pay for it.

Reel Gardening has worked with more than 300 schools over the past 6 years and has consistently seen the numerous benefits of empowering the youth to care for a garden. They learn about patience and slowing down in a past-paced, immediate gratification world. They learn to take responsibility for something and the consequences of letting that responsibility slide.


They learn that nature is not perfect and that sometimes your vegetables will be strange shapes and different colours but that they are still valuable and edible. They appreciate the embodied energy that goes into their food and learn to respect the environment. A vegetable garden is a beautiful life lesson.

The Barsha Pump

A low-cost initiative solution for smallholder farmers to irrigate their fields without using any fuel or electricity. The hydro power pump is easily implemented anywhere there is flowing water nearby and requires little maintenance.

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