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As SA transitioned to a developing economy in the early 2000s, the share of agriculture employment in total employment declined from 10% to 5%. But the agriculture sector could potentially be the solution to reducing the 34.9% unemployment rate.

However, for agriculture to fully serve as a tool for employment creation in SA, the sector needs to transform and appeal to the population. Hand-hoe agriculture and its limited returns (about R45,060 a year) render the sector unattractive to the youth (aged 15-34) and unemployed population of SA. Many of the country’s youth would rather migrate to the larger cities, even without prospects of finding work, than stay in the rural areas and work on farmlands.

The sector therefore requires transformation in the form of policy changes that improve market access and innovation to make it appeal to both the young and older population. This can be done through empowering and engaging the youth by offering initiatives such as business training and enabling market access to capture more value and integrate them into the agricultural market.

The government, in collaboration with the private sector, must come up with initiatives that address the real and perceived constraints, such as market access, to cultivate entrepreneurship in agriculture. These initiatives include creating community trade centres for agricultural produce and promoting the supply of agricultural produce to wholesale markets to sustain the building of communal agricultural programmes.

In India, for example, a World Bank-assisted project known as the Maharashtra Agricultural Competitiveness Project (MACP) helped to improve farmer access to agricultural markets by providing access to warehouse receipt systems linked to commodity exchanges in India. In addition, under the MACP, an Agri-Business Promotion Facility was established to promote producer-buyer supply linkages. Through this, smallholder farmers in India now had access to wholesale and alternative markets such as farmers markets and roadside stands.

By creating a more inclusive agriculture market, the younger SA population can become a part of the agriculture value chain and be exposed to new opportunities such as in agroprocessing, thus fostering youth entrepreneurship and creating employment in agriculture in the long run.

In addition to low remuneration, the unsustainability of jobs in agriculture plays a role in making agriculture a less appealing industry for employment. This is largely related to poor agricultural productivity as smallholder farming relies on rain-fed agriculture, which is unsustainable as a full-time career due to seasonality constraints. The result is the migration from rural communities to urban cities in search of perceived better employment opportunities. The government must therefore consider the rolling out of rural development programmes aimed at increasing water capacity and access to enable all-year cropping.

Taking China as an example, from the early 2000s, the government introduced policies and programmes in its so-called “No 1 central documents” aimed at improving agricultural production in rural areas. These included extending irrigation to previously rain-fed cropland. As a result, agricultural productivity increased at an average rate of 3.5% a year as more than one crop could be grown each year, contributing to the creation of sustainable jobs in agriculture.

The Chinese government also set up a minimum purchase price system for grains, which contributed to improving farmer incomes. Thus, by introducing rural development programmes and promoting investments in agriculture, agricultural productivity will increase and result in the creation of more sustainable jobs.

In conclusion, agriculture could be part of the solution to SA’s high unemployment rate. However, it is imperative that the sector be transformed and prioritised through collaboration between the private and public sectors to appeal to the unemployed population, in particular the youth. Key stakeholders from both sectors have a critical role to play in incentivising the youth to get them to benefit and be a part of the agricultural value chain and ultimately foster entrepreneurship in the sector.

As agriculture is largely unappealing because of its traditional farming methods, opportunities in the industry such as agroprocessing could serve as drivers for modernisation. By developing it in rural communities, agroprocessing could serve as a tool in creating employment and initiating the path towards further commercialisation of communal agriculture.

Policymakers must therefore double their efforts to transform the sector by creating rural development projects targeted at improving market access and creating a sustainable sector for a full-time career. This will help to aid in the appeal of the sector, thus making it a more attractive livelihood option for the rural young population of SA.

• Rambire is an analyst at research and advisory firm Birguid.

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