Opinion Piece


The agricultural sector’s importance on employment gained moment as far back as in 1994 when unemployment in South Africa firmly stood above 20%. Since mid-1990’s the sector has been perceived to alleviate poverty, especially after Bantustan population became active citizens and started to move across the country seeking employment.

Recent announcements by the minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza on releasing some state-owned farms which are majorly in North West, Limpopo and Eastern Cape is a positive step towards an inclusive sector, but, it’s only a start.

 Chapter six of the National Development Plan alludes to the role the sector is envisioned to play, where high value horticultural crops are particularly prioritised. Different sub-sectors offer different opportunities and they should be viewed separately. In this article I argue that field crops should not be overlooked especially in areas where there is underutilised land. Cotton is one of such crops. It might not have the same number of jobs per hectare planted as horticultural crops offer, but it has much more to offer along the value chain.

Global cotton supply for South Africa
Based on data from the International Trade Centre, South Africa imported 40 119 tons of cotton in 2019 while 42 053 tons were imported in 2018, representing a decline of 4.5% year-on-year basis. Of the imports, ginned but not further processed cotton has always constituted the largest portion for the past 19 years, despite the decline in import quantities over the years.

Domestic production
Cotton requires long periods without frost and it can survive temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius. The crop strives well in warm to humid climatic conditions as temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius result into small germination rates, thus negatively affecting yields.

Domestically, cotton production is mainly produced from relatively warm provinces with Limpopo being the biggest producer at 83 083 bales, each weighing 200 kilograms. Limpopo is followed by the North West at 23 866 bales and then Northern Cape at 16 205 bales. KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga offer a huge potential for production expansion both in dry-lands and under irrigation.

Data from cotton South Africa shows that since 2005/06 production season, cotton production under irrigation has been doing extremely well. About 3633 kg/ha was produced in 2005/06 season and this has increased to 4407 kg/ha in 2019/20 production season. This observation is majorly for commercial farmers and yields are significantly higher due to inputs use and water availability for irrigation.

Without irrigation, cotton production has also done well. For example, smallholder producers from Nkomazi in Mpumalanga on average produced 553 kg/ha in 2014 without any fertilizer use. However, with inputs application such as seeds, insecticides and fertilizer yields are anticipated to increase to 1 100 kg/ha during the 2019/20 season. In spite this, a lot needs to be done to bring smallholder producers close or to the same levels as commercial producers and access to land is a crucial component.

Presently, cotton production follows a simple route where the product after harvesting is sent to ginners, then exported for spinning and weaving. In essence, this means the country is losing employment opportunities along the value-chain such as in fabric and clothing manufacturing. A couple of basic measures can reverse this:

First, the state can assist farmers who are already making strides with inputs such as insecticides and fertilizers, which are important for producing the cotton crop. Cotton requires moderate concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers when compared to other crops such as maize.

Second, provision of the necessary skills should be made mandatory for new comers to ensure a sustainable and continuation of production.

Third, create a transparent process of using funds for farmers where a clear statement of record is kept and made available to ensure viability of the project and investment in infrastructure to build the industry’s value chain thus keeping the essential job opportunities. Domestic buyers such as Edcon, the Mr Price Group and others are buying locally produced cotton, as long as it is of good quality.

South Africa’s cotton industry produces world class cotton, strengthening joint efforts between public and private can further improve the industry and help build a resilient sub-sector. This would bring more of the success observed in Nkomazi, Mpumalanga. However, the government has got to take a stand and lead in this regard.

South Africa imports large quantities of cotton because there is not enough domestic production to supply the market. This offers more room to increase domestic production. With the current unemployment rate in South Africa, no stone should be left unturned so as to reduce unemployment. Production requirements for cotton present a good opportunity for ordinary emerging farmers across South Africa who are without water rights which are crucial for high yields or strong capital sources for primary production inputs.

By Thabile Nkunjana, email: Thabile@namc.co.za, twitter: @ThabileNkunjana

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