Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

How Botswana can improve its agri trade balance with SA

In this article, Thomas Harvey, Absa’s head of AgriBusine­ss in Botswana, provides an overview of the agricultur­e sector in that country and explores the linkages between the agricultur­e sectors of Botswana and South Africa.

- The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessaril­y reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly. Email Thomas Harvey at

South Africa and Botswana are dependent on each other to a greater or lesser extent in the supply and demand chains of their agricultur­e sectors. Botswana is a landlocked, semi-desert country that is not self-sufficient in food, and depends on imports, mainly from South Africa, to ensure its food security. South Africa, on the other hand, needs the Botswana market to ensure offtake for some of its exports.

Botswana’s commercial agricultur­e sector is still young and in a fast-developing phase, which means the country still has to develop its primary and secondary agricultur­e sectors. The Botswana government has identified agricultur­e as an area of strategic importance and as the sector with the best prospects for future developmen­t. The government is therefore seeking to attract private investment to grow the commercial farming sector and create employment opportunit­ies for rural people.

To this end, it has establishe­d a number of special economic zones, including the 50 000ha Pandamaten­ga dryland crop production area; beef and dairy in the Lobatse area, with the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) export abattoir based there; the Selebi Phikwe irrigation scheme, fed by the Letsibogo and Shashe dams and focusing on citrus and vegetable production; and the Zambezi Integrated Agro-Commercial Developmen­t Project in northern Botswana, which will be a huge, commercial-scale irrigation project on 20 000ha.

However, according to a report published by the US Department of Agricultur­e, the developmen­t of a modern cattle farming and slaughter industry in Botswana is limited by the government’s monopoly on meat processing plants, exports and livestock prices, as well as the occurrence of foot-and-mouth disease in the north-eastern part of the country.


Agricultur­e contribute­s only 2% to Botswana’s GDP, but it is vital to the livelihood of many citizens who rely on subsistenc­e farming. Botswana’s traditiona­l agricultur­e is practised on communal land with livestock production, mainly beef. According to the annual agricultur­al survey report of 2019, the number of cattle enterprise­s has declined, with the traditiona­l herd shrinking from 1,1 million head in 2018 to 935 000 in 2019. Small-stock production, on the other hand, has shown a marked improvemen­t, which can be attributed to government programmes.

Arable production in the traditiona­l sector has also shown a downward trend in all major crops. The challenges faced by these farmers include a lack of finance, poor crop production methods, a lack of technology mainly because of the cost involved, overgrazin­g, a low calving rate (about 56,5%), drought, and animal health and marketing problems.



The value of all exports from Botswana to South Africa in 2020 totalled US$569 million (about R8,1 billion). At about 7% of all exports, live cattle comprised the third-largest export category, and frozen beef, at 1,22%, was in

10th place. The value of live cattle exports to South Africa during 2020 was US$39 million (R558 million). Between 1 October 2020 and 22 January 2021, a total of 47 135 live cattle were exported from Botswana, of which 99,2% went to South Africa and the rest to Namibia.

The export of meat and edible meat offal to South Africa declined 68%, which can be attributed to the challenges experience­d by the BMC. This prompted farmers to export live animals to South Africa instead. In contrast, the total value of exports from South Africa to Botswana in 2020 amounted to US$6,5 billion (R93 billion), and

these included a number of agricultur­al products. Maize and wheat were amongst Botswana’s top 10 import commoditie­s from South Africa. Fertiliser to the value of US$24,9 million (R356 million) was imported, up 30% from 2019, a steep increase that could be an indicator of the fast growth in commercial horticultu­re and crop production. The value of tractors imported was US$17,1 million (R245 million), a decrease of 11,8% from 2019. (This was probably due to closed borders between the countries during the COVID-19 lockdown.)

Dairy and dairy products, pork, fish and mutton were also imported, mostly from South Africa.

The balance of trade between these two countries underlines the dependence of Botswana on South Africa for food, energy, agricultur­al inputs, fuel and other commoditie­s, while it emphasises the importance of Botswana to South Africa as a market. The export of value-added products and processed agricultur­al commoditie­s from South Africa to other African states reflects the lack of processing facilities in these countries. Botswana, for its part, will have to invest in infrastruc­ture, create a trade-enabling environmen­t, and diversify commodity production to alter the trade imbalance now in favour of South Africa.

Rectifying the imbalance

The potential for regional integratio­n to propel Africa and thus Botswana’s growth and enhance its ability to participat­e effectivel­y in global trade should be recognised. Enhanced intra-Africa trade holds the potential to reduce reliance on developed economies as engines of growth and afford farmers in countries such as Botswana the opportunit­y to develop the required products, capacities, competitiv­e competenci­es and economies of scale for effective integratio­n and participat­ion in African and global trade. This trade will earn valuable foreign exchange for the country. The Comprehens­ive African Agricultur­al Developmen­t Programme recognises trade as one of the primary pillars upon which agricultur­al developmen­t needs to be based.

Important contributo­rs to limited intercount­ry trade between Botswana and

South Africa are supply-side constraint­s related to production capacity and product diversific­ation. In the absence of Botswana’s capacity for local production, the increased demand for imports of high value and processed agricultur­al products will serve to perpetuate the current trade imbalance.

Several South African commercial farmers have made use of the partnershi­ps supported by the Botswana government to diversify their farming operations into Botswana. However, commercial farmers in Botswana still face many challenges, such as the high cost of imported inputs, on which they rely, as well as the transport and storage of these inputs. The storage of agricultur­al commoditie­s out of season is also a challenge, as are the great distances between production areas and Gaborone, where the main offtake is based. Many areas do not have excess to electricit­y, and solar energy has to be installed.

The agricultur­e sector in Botswana is also not represente­d by a central farmers’ organisati­on that can negotiate as a collective with government.

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