Tilling the land can be a thriving environment to boost start-ups.

KIZITO OKECHUKWU | SEPTEMBER 27, 2018

Land expropriation in South Africa is quickly becoming a reality, as the majority of the country’s people have realised that historical injustices need to be undone. As one with absolutely no political affiliation, I do, however, hope a fair, democratic and inclusive approach for all will be used.

Just to get a broader perspective on this major issue, let’s go back in time. The Natives Land Act of 1913 forced millions of black South Africans from productive farms across the country, when their cattle, their homes, their crops and their possessions, were taken from them. It also prohibited the establishment of new farming operations and was thankfully abolished in 1991.

I think myself and some of our youth today might not really understand, or even know about, the gravitas of that heinous land Act, which deprived their forefathers of a sustainable, often thriving existence.

The recurring fact of the matter is that blacks still do not own land proportionately to whites. On a much more positive note, President Cyril Ramaphosa has established a dedicated ten-strong team to address this as an urgent matter of national importance. This has been widely welcomed across the country.

Yet to resolve the land issue amicably, South Africans of all races and creeds need to unify and collaborate, with the economic betterment of our country as the predominant end-goal, and our youth as the real winners. This is my key take-away point.

Amidst this, agriculture, being obviously land-based, is undeniably one of the sectors that can transform Africa’s economy – especially by helping to eradicate the saddening scourge of youth unemployment by creating an abundance of job opportunities. In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s newly proposed stimulus package, he also emphasised that agriculture, which will ultimately go hand-in-hand with the proposed land reforms, has massive potential for job creation in the immediate and long term, so more good news.

Recently, the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), the continent’s most influential gathering around Africa’s largest economic sector, concluded its meetings in Kigali with ambitious commitments to deliver billions of dollars in new investments to African farms and agribusinesses, triple agriculture trade between African countries and forge new partnerships with a cast of development partners from China, India, Brazil, and Israel.

The aspirations for a thriving agricultural economy on the continent are at an all-time high and more focus is being shifted towards this, which is very encouraging. South Africa cannot afford to be left behind in this process.

During my visit to Abidjan and Kigali last week, I met a few science students and agri entrepreneurs who proved to me that many young people are keen to play a role in agricultural production on the continent.

As President Ramaphosa was announcing the team panel on land expropriation, the headlines in the Kigali Times read “President Kagame urges Youth to participate in Agriculture”. In Rwanda, agriculture contributes some 32% to the GDP of the country.

Yet surprisingly, agriculture currently only contributes 3% to the GDP of South Africa. This also stems from the fact that South Africa’s economy is more diversified. This presents an opportunity to scale this sector into a lucrative one by ploughing more investments into it and engaging the youth. In the past few years, the Nigerian economy felt the brunt of overdependence on crude oil. The country is currently diversifying its economy with Agriculture acting as a leading sector now. Agriculture even in a small scale should be the new buzz word in South Africa. More homes and families should be encouraged to plant in their backyard and gardens. I for one have a lemon tree and also grow some vegetables in my small garden.

The stimulus package led by the President is a very positive step towards realizing this goal, but implementation of it will be key, as stressed by Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Public Enterprises.

Now back to the land issue. How can South Africa resolve this in collaboration with all key stakeholders?

  1. Youth Investment: More young people should be informed and made aware of the exciting potential of the agricultural sector in order to grow a keen interest in it. This can include developing new technologies (specifically from aspirant local start-ups) to modernize and advance the sector.
  2. On-the-job Mentorship & Land Ownership and Leasing: Unproductive land should be distributed to aspiring young farmers. Instead of expropriation without compensation on productive lands, why not merge young black farmers with existing white farmers in a 50/50 partnership with on-the-job mentoring? White farmers can give 50% equity of their farm to the emerging black farmer, while the land is leased for 99 years with the black farmer taking full ownership of the land after the term.
  3. Make young farmers permanent farers: To ensure a fair process, it should be mandatory that all young black farmers are paired with knowledgeable and experienced black and white farmers to learn the trade and become permanent farmers on that land. This will ensure that the right people become beneficiaries of the land.

In today’s economic environment, young black farmers cannot simply be expected to work the land. A transition process towards owning equity should be developed to be seamless, sustainable and mutually beneficial for all parties. Working the land and running it as a business are two different things and young people should be guided through this process with education, mentorship and partnerships.

All-in-all, land reform is a challenging issue for any country to get right first time. It needs due process, due diligence, open-mindedness and an immense collaborative effort from all South Africans. Having spoken to many of my peers in South Africa, there is no doubt that land like language is dignity and shapes identity just like Busani Ngcaweni put it in his recent piece “The Land is our heritage, let’s share it”.

 

Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa; 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

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