Siphiwe Sithole grows native crops such as amadumbe – coconut yams – and bitter vegetables, on her small farm just outside Johannesburg.
It can be very difficult to grow a small farm in South Africa. It has to do with crime, including robberies and attacks on agricultural workers, and has struggled to gain access to fertile land and water.
Such challenges are not uncommon in sub-Saharan Africa, where small farms, those less than 10 hectares, or 25 acres, represent about 80% of agricultural land.
However, the secret of Ms. Sithole’s success was to firmly focus on a niche market: organic and indigenous products. It also markets under its own brand, African Marmalade.
This strategy means it doesn’t have to compete with large commercial farms, which can easily buy things like fertilizer and have wider access to more markets.
But he knows that his fellow smallholders have to constantly struggle to keep running costs down.
“We have seen that as oil prices escalate, the further you move away from the market, the more you will bleed and you will not be able to sell some of the things. [produce]”, explains.
In South Africa, large farms tend to have greater access to more resources – knowledge and finance – while small farmers generally struggle even to sustain or grow their businesses.
But one company hopes to use technology to level the playing field for small farms a little and create a thriving business for itself.
Agro-technological startup, Khula! – which means ‘to grow’ in the local language isiZulu – is based in Johannesburg.
It was launched in 2018 and already works with a network of around 7,500 farmers, as well as hundreds of third-party suppliers and agricultural consultants.
It has an online shop for the sale of raw materials such as seeds, chemicals and fertilizers; and also provides information and technical support (a particularly useful service for farmers based in more remote locations).
“If you are a first-generation farmer, for example, you only know what your neighbor knows,” says chief operating officer Ayanda Vana.
Another resource is the Khula! app, being tested. Once up and running, it should allow farmers to sell their crops directly to retailers and other buyers.
This could potentially reduce a lot of uncertainty for smallholders: Prices fluctuate constantly in wholesale markets, and the agents who handle such deals typically take a reduction of around 15%.
The company also has a dashboard that brings together smallholder farmers and potential investors.
“The biggest cry, or problem, within this space has been funding,” says Ms. Vana. “As a farmer, if you want to grow and if you want to grow, you will need funding.”
The Khula! the platform has its competitors, particularly when it comes to selling products – Ms. Sithole, for example, uses a rival, HelloChoice.
But Maluta Netshaulu, Nedbank’s senior agriculture manager, thinks Khula’s proposal! has the potential to do well.
“There are many platforms [around] at the moment, in terms of supplying your products, but there isn’t one that helps farmers find inputs and gives them that freedom of choice. “
Mr Netshaulu’s main concern for apps like Khula! it is whether they can gain sufficient market share to be profitable, ie reach a sufficient number of smallholder farmers and be useful for a wide range of farms.
“This start-up aims to revolutionize the market and offer this solution to everyone across the board,” he says. “How are you going to make sure people find value in your proposition?”
Patricia Seaba of TC Women in Action Farming grows vegetables such as lettuce, peppers and cucumbers on 17.5 hectares (43 acres) outside Pretoria.
Before switching to using an app, he traveled more than 100 km (60 miles) every six weeks to the nearest supplier.
“We love shopping online,” he laughs. But “accessing private markets is a very big challenge,” he adds, “because you can plant whatever you want, but if you don’t have markets, it’s a really big problem.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sithole wishes there are more services out there that specifically address the organic market. He would also like to see a central source of information and support, for issues such as crop selection and pest identification.
“Someone just needs to have a simple and consolidated South African platform that becomes the point of reference, even if one were to subscribe.”
- Business in Africa
- Economy of Africa
- South Africa
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