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We are emerging from a week of celebrating the SA wool and sheep industry. On June 13, SA’s National Wool Growers Association held its annual congress in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape. The discussions were about inclusive growth and transformation, taking stock of the gains made since the dawn of democracy.

We have not fared badly. I was encouraged by the spirit of the discussions and the sense of optimism in the sector. Consensus emerged on the following areas that should be a primary focus in transformation:

  • The government and wool industry must work collectively to improve genetics for the new entrant farmers and assist existing commercial farmers where needed.
  • Government and the wool industry must work together to develop infrastructure for new farming areas and the former homeland regions. This is key for success, and depends largely on the resources the government makes available.
  • Skills and training remain vital for new entrant farmers. The National Wool Growers Association and other regional farmers could assist in this.
  • Animal disease remains a significant concern. The department of agriculture, land reform & rural development should lead efforts in addressing this challenge collaboratively with the agricultural sector.
  • Regarding land reform and blended finance, the government should continue releasing more than 2-million hectares of state land to beneficiaries with title deeds, and pair that with blended finance. Such a policy step will go far towards broadening ownership in the sector.

Achieving inclusive growth and transformation is possible when government works with the sector and when state capabilities are geared for delivery. This is particularly so for fixing municipal infrastructure. The costs of failing municipalities and poorly maintained roads, particularly in the Eastern Cape and Free State, must receive urgent attention in the incoming administration.

The subtle theme, which is vital but perhaps did not dominate the discussion, is a need to search for new export markets while ensuring continuous access to China. The Chinese market accounts for about 70% of SA’s wool exports. While this is good for the sector, this level of concentration has risks.

A day after the congress the wool growers went to another exciting event, the Karoo Winter Wool Festival in Middelburg, Eastern Cape. The festival is one of few in which one can appreciate the sheep industry’s entire value chain.

The hive of activities in this festival was marked by exhibitions of sheep shearing, spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting and all other fibre crafts of the clothing industry. There were fashion shows galore, showcasing a range of clothing made of wool — yet another testament to SA’s agricultural economic vibrancy.

Leather material products were also on display, with craftsmen readily explaining the origins of the material and the design of clothes. At lunch there were nourishing mutton and lamb products from the Karoo and various regions of the country. Those in the “knowledge economy” also had time and an eager audience to share views about pressing issues in the country.

The Karoo Winter Wool Festival exemplifies the strength of the agritourism industry in SA. Many other value chains and commodities should follow a path on which there is a weekend to celebrate a particular commodity and showcase all the value chain activities. This is necessary to promote the industry's image and help consumers understand the value chains of the agriculture, food, fibre and beverages industries.

With small and rural towns in SA deteriorating while the farming sector and agribusiness are still active, it may be well worth promoting agritourism. This would be a way to support declining towns and help South Africans fully appreciate the agricultural value chains and the interconnectedness of the sector to our lives.

• Sihlobo is chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics.

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