More youth is needed to prop up agri­cul­ture

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Justin Chad­wick Justin Chad­wick is the chief ex­ec­u­tive: Cit­rus Grow­ers’ Association of south­ern Africa.

THE AV­ER­AGE age of a South African farmer is 62 years, and in Aus­tralia and the US it’s 55 years. To boot, our farm­ing pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled from 128 000 in the 80s to ap­prox­i­mately 30 000 in 2014.

So, why aren’t our youth flock­ing into the sec­tor?

A de­bate sur­round­ing the re­cent Nampo 2017 high­lighted pos­si­ble rea­sons: a lack of in­for­ma­tion around ac­cess­ing funds and land; no true col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween tra­di­tional farmers and in­com­ing younger ones; un­der-utilised agri col­leges; poor gov­er­nance and bad man­age­ment of these col­leges; as well as the ap­point­ment of un­suit­able staff.

Our young peo­ple need to be ed­u­cated around the plethora of ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties within the sec­tor. Then, the sec­tor needs to have a col­lec­tive go at the pre­vail­ing myths: that there are no en­tic­ing ca­reers for the youth.

Un­less the agri­cul­tural sec­tor em­barks on this “cam­paign” with chutz­pah, we’re un­likely to cap­ture and re­tain the at­ten­tion of our youth (and ben­e­fit from their much­needed ex­per­tise).

The R14 bil­lion cit­rus in­dus­try is pleased to be mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant strides in this quest. In fact, the Cit­rus Grow­ers’ Association of south­ern Africa es­tab­lished the Cit­rus Academy Bur­sary Fund back in 2006. And to date, they’ve awarded more than 600 bur­saries to 250 stu­dents (more than half of them women). The Bur­sary Fund sup­ports stu­dents who are en­rolled in reg­is­tered post-school ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions in South Africa, and sup­ports fields of study re­lated to cit­rus pro­duc­tion and re­search.

Asanda Mditshwa, who hails from Bizana in the Eastern Cape, suc­cess­fully ap­plied for the Cit­rus Academy Bur­sary Fund (CABF) in 2007. He was in the sec­ond year of his stud­ies to­wards a BSc de­gree at the Univer­sity of Fort Hare. Fast-for­ward to 2015, and seven Cit­rus Academy bur­saries later, and we have a grad­u­ate with a PhD in hor­ti­cul­ture from the Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch.

Dur­ing his stud­ies, the academy af­forded Mditshwa the op­por­tu­nity to travel ex­ten­sively whilst gain­ing in­valu­able prac­ti­cal in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence. But he laments the lack of in­for­ma­tion pro­vided to young peo­ple around ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties in agri­cul­ture; and, par­tic­u­larly the need for ad­e­quate ca­reer guid­ance for blacks.

Mditshwa re­calls a lack of funds as a stu­dent, so dire that he nearly suf­fered non-dis­clo­sure of his first-year aca­demic re­sults. And he’s grate­ful for the timely as­sis­tance of the fund and, of course, a dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion to achieve success.

With a pas­sion for re­search, Mditshwa en­joys that this forms a sig­nif­i­cant part of his role as hor­ti­cul­ture lec­turer at the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal. His is but one of the many success sto­ries.

Qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion

The Cit­rus Academy also pro­vides on­go­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port to BEE cit­rus en­ter­prises, to de­velop their in­ter­nal ca­pac­ity. El­i­gi­ble in­di­vid­u­als within these busi­nesses then have ac­cess to qual­ity for­mal ed­u­ca­tion.

The Nampo 2017 de­bate also em­pha­sised an acute need for qual­i­fied farmers – the only way to farm suc­cess­fully. And this speaks to the Cit­rus Academy’s no-com­pro­mise fo­cus on “re­leas­ing” qual­i­fied, com­pe­tent in­di­vid­u­als into the in­dus­try – whether they opt to ex­plore the sci­ence that sus­tains this fas­ci­nat­ing in­dus­try, farm with cit­rus, or ex­plore any of the other op­tions.

Stats SA’s re­cent an­nounce­ment of South Africa’s tech­ni­cal re­ces­sion is sober­ing. And, though no growth in em­ploy­ment was recorded in agri­cul­ture, the sec­tor has ral­lied af­ter eight con­sec­u­tive quar­ters of con­trac­tion. In fact, the Agri­cul­tural Cham­ber re­ports a 22 per­cent quar­ter-on-quar­ter growth (ad­justed sea­son­ally, and an­nu­alised). The cham­ber also con­firms the agri­cul­tural sec­tor work­force cur­rently clock­ing in at 875 000 jobs. This con­sti­tutes 5 per­cent of SA’s en­tire labour force (dou­ble that of min­ing).

It was Youth Month – the 41st an­niver­sary month of the Soweto up­ris­ings on June 16, 1976 – an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate our youth. Yet we lament the soar­ing num­bers of their un­em­ploy­ment. We need many more agri­cul­tural success sto­ries like Mditshwa’s, and – im­por­tantly – for them to be told. This is one way the sec­tor can at­tract young minds.

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