A tale of two smallholder red meat projects

Currently in South Africa, there are red meat projects running parallel to each other; the National Red Meat Development Programme (NRMDP) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) project. 

They are being implemented to integrate or develop smallholder farmers in beef cattle production into commercial producers. The NRMDP is most popular for its custom feeding facilities and livestock auction sales while the ACIAR is known as the “High quality markets and value chains for small-scale and emerging beef cattle farmers in South Africa”. The latter claims its origin and funding from the West (Australia) and the former is local (South Africa). For the purpose of this article, I refer to the ACIAR project as the first project, NRMDP as the “second project; and smallholder cattle farmers as farmers.

The first project is populated by academics, appointed staff and representatives, who form its advisory council. This council occupies itself with discussions, debates, and deliberations on matters it deems essential to the existence of the project. These discussions involve two broad aspects: firstly, the development of high free-range beef value chains, and; secondly, addressing four inter‐dependent research objectives.

Beneath this first project of council, free range value chains and research, there is another project – the NRMDP or the second project, which is not too formal as the previous one. This project puts the farmer first and research is secondary. It customises itself to the needs and aspirations of farmers by accompanying them through their journey of farming with cattle – the high points (income generation) and the low points (drought and diseases). The second project focuses mainly on linking farmers to formal market by introducing auctions, feedlots and abattoirs along with on-site training on how to participate in this market. At the same time, the project systematises the informal market. 

While these projects are different in terms of value chain pathways, they both have an interest to the farmers and both have one common ultimate goal of linking these farmers to markets. This commonality can be used as a basis for collaboration to complement each other. For instance, the low intake of the first project by farmers can be improved through leaning from the second project. On the other hand, the research output from the first project can assist the second project to fine tune tenacity in planning and execution.

Furthermore, instead of just focusing on recruiting farmers to supply its identified free-range value chains, the first project can provide some form of financial support to the farmers, and this approach has been the source of success in the second project. The financial support can be in the form of insurance, transport or drought relief. The second project can start using some of the research models of the first project to address the question of uncertainty about its sustainability, which is often raised by funders and some practitioners. But, sadly each project goes through life as if the other is non-existent. 

Having experienced both of these projects for some years, my take is that, unless both projects work on their areas of weakness through collaboration, both will diminish in vitality and effectiveness. If the first project continues to place more emphasis on research, it will be rendered impotent and irrelevant by farmers because it can only make the most useful and impactful innovations by investing more in the front lines and margins where women and men experience the life of farming (and this is the strength of the second project). In its current state, the second project runs a risk of being exploited by farmers as a social grant facility instead of a tool for commercialisation of their cattle. This means more effort is required to sharpen its business orientation, which will help to attract other forms of funding and minimise inconveniences that come with regime change of government. 

Lindikaya Myeki is an economist and writes in his own personal capacity.

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