Water use in smallholder food value chains
Smallholder farmers in South Africa have a crucial role to play in solving food security issues in the country, but the lack of sufficient water means they often don’t even manage to grow food for themselves. This is the one of the findings of a five-year long study by the Water Research Commission, which was finalised in October last year.
While the study included various aspects that impact on the challenges that smallholder farmers face on a daily basis – including infrastructure, market accessibility and the lack of education and training – Dr Binganidzo Muchara, who has studied three smallholder farming communities in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape since 2009, said access to sufficient water is one of the major drawbacks that keep all these communities from reaching their full potential. “While smallholder farming communities face a range of different challenges, access to water is the single biggest problem that they face,” says Dr Muchara, who received his doctorate in Agricultural Economics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal for this study.
South Africa has over 37 000 smallholder farmers in over 200 small-scale irrigation schemes, covering about 50 000 hectares, but these farmers often produce low-value crops which do not even meet subsistence food requirements. According to the National Development Plan, Government plans to focus on the rural economy to create 643 000 direct jobs and 326 000 indirect jobs, in the agriculture, agro-processing and related sectors, by 2030. The plan specifically makes mention of an investment in irrigation infrastructure and also aims to create tenure security for communal farmers – especially women – and to strengthen the process of vesting private property rights to beneficiaries of land reform. Smallholder farmers are at a great disadvantage to their commercial counterparts, as they come from an informal base and do not have the skills and knowledge to operate in the modern agricultural sector. “One of the main problems is that these farmers don’t know how to arrange access to water,” says Dr Muchara.
Farmers – including smallholder farmers – have to be licensed as water users and belong to a Water User Association (WUA) – which regulates and manages the distribution of water – to legally draw water from rivers and dams, but Dr Muchara says many of the smallholder farmers distrust these organisations, believing they are merely put in place to charge them for their water usage. “So, the result is that many of them use water illegally.” Dr Muchara adds that there is a skills shortage when it comes to water management at smallholder level. “Water management structures at smallholder levels are too weak and the Water Use Associations at smallholder level are not operational. Farmers don’t know what has to be done and who should be responsible for it.”
In some of the irrigation schemes, water is also a cause for conflict, as farmers upstream, who have the first access to continuous water, often violated water usage rosters and irrigated on a daily – rather than a weekly – basis, effectively starving off their colleagues downstream. South Africa is a water-scarce country, with over 60% of its surface and groundwater being used in the irrigated-agriculture sector. This makes the management, accountability and distribution of water in the irrigation sector crucial. Dr Muchara believes that it is critical for smallholder farmers to be included in the formal agricultural sector – by improving support services, putting the right infrastructure in place and assisting them to market their goods in accordance with food quality standards – in order for the authorities to record their activities better.
Smallholder farmers have huge challenges to overcome in delivering quality produce to the market, as they are often faced with issues like unreliable rainfall in rain-fed areas, a lack of resources like training and labour, inaccessible markets, competition from commercial farmers and the inability to produce crops to standards set by supermarkets.
Promising projects that could create a number of jobs fail because of a single factor, like poor access to a market. “One project failed because farmers had to deliver their goods to a market via a dirt road of over 30 km,” said Dr Muchara. Dr Muchara believes there is a solution to the problem, however. “Collective action is the way to go,” he says. "Smallholder farmers should stand together, and as communities plan and produce their crops, hire equipment and transport together, and negotiate as a group where it comes to placing their goods on the market". By doing this, they could also stand much firmer in negotiating and obtaining water use rights, and get access to training. “Every initiative by Government or relevant NGOs must be supported so that they can produce at marketable volumes that can be accounted for,” says Dr Muchara.
Adriaan Taljaard , Manager Marketing and Communication
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