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Wandile Sihlobo: From fake honey to donkey milk - SA's bumper year in agribusiness

Dec 13 2018 06:00
Wandile Sihlobo

It is year-end and I had planned to write an essay reflecting on the performance of the South African agricultural economy in 2018.

But the data have largely been disappointing, particularly in the first half of the year, so a review would suggest – incorrectly – that there were few positive developments in the sector.  

In fact, much has happened in the sector this year, and it is worth singling out the key developments.

Honey, honey

In February I tweeted about honey adulteration issues – which simply means a production of fake honey using sugar or other ingredients.

At the time I suspected that the issue would be linked to foreign products only. Well, turns out we also have bad guys here in South Africa.

How do I know this? From conversations with a couple of beekeepers in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal. A number of media outlets followed up on this story to help raise consumer awareness about bad things that were happening in the bee industry, and that caught the regulators’ attention.

We are yet to see what will happen in the coming months. This was, nonetheless, a positive thing for consumers and the South African bee industry.

Horsemeat

South Africa imported 80 tonnes of horsemeat in 2017, up by 51% year-on-year. The key supplier was identified as Brazil.

Of the imported horsemeat, only five tonnes were re-exported to the Maldives and Swaziland; the rest appears to have been utilised within the country. But this year there were no imports.

Donkey milk

While this idea has gained momentum this year, it dates back from 2017, when Anga Holdings representative, Mompati Kgomanyane-Modimogale, presented an idea of developing the donkey milk and other dairy products industry in South Africa. (Read Donkey Milk is Back!)

Kgomanyane-Modimogale viewed donkey milk as a good alternative for consumers with dairy allergies, and that it can also be used as a supplement for breast milk.

Aside from all the health benefits matters, what I found striking at the time was the price of donkey milk in countries such as India, where a litre was roughly US$60 in November 2017.

Closer to home in Botswana, 250 ml was going for around BWP80 (approximately R110.00). As yet, this industry is not well established in South Africa. Kgomanyane-Modimogale believes that a research and education drive about donkey milk products and their potential health benefits could improve public perception about donkey products in the country.

Black wheat farmers in the Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape farmers brought to my attention something I have not been thinking about of late – the possible expansion of winter wheat plantings to new regions in the country.

Victor Mongoato, who farms in Matatiele, together with associates in Ugie and Maclear in the Eastern Cape, are doing field trials for various dryland winter wheat cultivars.

I was impressed by this initiative for two reasons. First, the idea of possible expansion of winter wheat plantings in South Africa is encouraging given that the area planted has been steadily decreasing over the years.

Between the 1994/95 and 2017/18 production seasons, the country’s winter wheat plantings declined by more than half to 491 600 ha, according to data from the South African Grain Information Services.

Dagga-belt

After publishing an essay on Fin24 about South Africa’s potential ‘dagga-belt’ on November 20, there has been growing interest from agricultural policymakers and senior practitioners who promise to be looking at this plant closely in the coming months so that we too can have the cannabis industry making a productive contribution to the South African economy.

At the moment, cannabis has been de-criminalised in South Africa for private use. While the users or consumers might be thrilled with this, my interest is more on the international trade space to boost the economic benefits for the country.

Aside from these new initiatives, we end 2018 on a mixed note form an agricultural economic perspective.

The sentiment in the sector remains subdued as shown in a consistent deterioration in the Agbiz/IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index which fell to the lowest level in nine years in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Meanwhile, the agricultural GDP rebounded on the third quarter of 2018, growing by 6.5% on a quarter-on-quarter seasonally-adjusted annualised rate.

This tells us we are not out of the woods yet. The recent uptick in agricultural GDP is no call for celebration. The recovery could be temporary, and weak going forward as the weather outlook, which initially painted a positive outlook, proves to be a key challenge again for the summer crop growing areas and could then negatively affect the performance of the agricultural sector in 2019.

Having said that, the benefit of the recovery in the Western Cape’s weather conditions could provide a buffer in the sector in the first quarter of 2019. But, the overall annual performance will largely depend on weather conditions in the summer rainfall areas.

Wandile Sihlobo is head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz). Twitter: @WandileSihlobo

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