OBAL INSIGHT : Where will future agricultural jobs come from?
The role of agriculture and agroprocessing in creating one million jobs over the next 20 to 30 years can be informed by several insights
I have gained in recent months.
The first task is to imagine how the labour market might look in 10 to 15 years’ time, using current trends and perspectives as a reference point. Of course, those conditions may not be realised, given the pace and intensity of market changes that are constantly shifting under the weight of political, social and economic forces.
My view is that the South African agricultural labour market in particular, and the agro-processing industry in general, will be shaped and influenced by the forces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a fundamental way. Agriculture and agro-processing are already undergoing deep and intense changes that are linked to advancements in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, e-commerce, mobile computing, and more.
The 2030 scenario
I envision a 2030 scenario in which the agricultural and agro-processing labour force becomes a particularly skilled workforce that requires specialised proficiencies. The agro-food sector is already morphing into a sophisticated set of intricate supply chains that not only demand a unique and specialised skills set, but a more technically astute one. In this scenario, the food sector employs fewer, but skilled, workers on the one hand, and even fewer semi- to unskilled workers, resulting in a structured, heterogenous and interdisciplinary workforce.
The implication is that food is produced more efficiently, and becomes much cheaper than ever before, with far more being produced on much less land and with less water. I predict a highly productive workforce, which is going to produce more output and value per hectare. In this regard, higher minimum wages will result in some commercial farming enterprises hiring fewer labourers, and adopting more efficient and cost-effective technologies.
The upside will be matched by an equally challenging downside. Agriculture and agro-processing will cease to be the sectors that readily absorb unskilled labour as policy analysts have long assumed. In this scenario, the labour market will continue to decline over time, although at a relatively less drastic pace than over the past 50 to 60 years.
The services sector as job creator
So, where will the bulk of unemployed youth find jobs? The answer lies in the high-value ‘services’ sector, ranging from logistics to agri-financial services, as well as training and reskilling services for a labour market that has to continually adapt to changing technological advancements. The renewed focus on service-driven agricultural enterprises will require high levels of expertise and knowledge, driven by the same Fourth Industrial Revolution tenets.
The agri-services space has been evolving and expanding with a growing emphasis on, and prominence in, consumerism, supply chain efficiencies and value chain integration, among others. The assumption underpinning this view is that the sector itself, and the labour it requires to drive its growth, will be much more complex in the future than the initial assumptions that shaped the current policy debate on job creation.
So what does this all mean for job creation in the 2030 scenario? Firstly, one can reasonably conclude that if this scenario plays out, one million jobs in agriculture can only be created with a significant investment in ‘skilling’ the labour force to make it relevant to the evolving agritechnology trends in agriculture. Such skilling shouldn’t necessarily be based on tertiary education, but technical training that is industry-demand driven.
Secondly, South Africa requires a quantum leap in research and development to match the investment of some developed nations that are producing cuttingedge technologies that are shaping global agricultural production.
Thirdly, the predominant focus on agro-processing must now be matched with a concerted focus on agri-services, which are tailor-made and designed to support smallholder agriculture.