TEDxJohannesburg: How hacking the farm can fix a broken food system
Over the last couple of weeks, the agricultural industry has been more in the mainstream media’s spotlight than it usually is.
Between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA address in which he said he was committed to making farming a priority industry and this week’s vote in parliament to amend the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation, the future of agriculture has become a big talking point.
Perhaps then, there has never been a better time for experts in this field to bring their experiences, knowledge, ideas and stories to light. At the TEDxJohannesburg: Hacking The Farm event at Tshimologong Precinct this was precisely what happened.
Speakers included farmers, biochemists, entrepreneurs, designers, researchers, engineers, activists and more, talking on a range of topics.
During the afternoon Zimbabwean Development Practitioner, Ed Mabaya, showed off drought, blight and root rot resistant maize seeds and beans (called the Hunger Buster Bazooka and the Nabe 15 Super Bean), which surprisingly enough, were not GMOs. Reel Gardening’s Claire Reid presented her company’s Get Kids Growing kits; small, perfectly formed seed collections contained in biodegradable paper, aimed at getting kids and newbies into growing their own food. German entrepreneur, and self-styled drone master, Frank Wernecke, gave a talk about the positive impact drones could have on gathering data for farmers about crop rotation and weather patterns.
But whether speakers were there to talk about business models, inventions or their experiences, all of them broadly agreed on one issue; the farming industry needs new blood. It needs more young people to enter the agriculture industry – as farmers, engineers, researchers and more – and this is borne out by the fact that the average age of farmers in this country is 62.
Let’s make farming sexy
So how to change this? Well, Entrepreneur Joshua C. Ngoma believes the answer lies in making the sector more sexy and more exciting.
“What do young people like? They like tech,” he said. “They also like the idea of training with a view to having a job at the end of it.”
Ngoma’s part of the African Greeneurs outfit, who train up young candidates in both business and technical skills in the AG Franchise Model. Described by Ngoma as a 360 degree model, the AGFM also gifts graduates an exit plan.
“While training progresses, the program looks at funding options for the candidates,” he said. “To that end we look at buying land from the government, tribal authorities or private sellers, so the candidates are settled when they graduate from the program.”
The Siyakhana Garden Project takes a similar approach, although its more community-based, informal and set in urban areas. The Project’s Michael Rudolph said that through its efforts, locals have been trained up as urban farmers, patches of heretofore abandoned plots have been turned into subsistence farms and food has been distributed out to local communities. All of it results in social mobilisation for community members and inner city development.
Entrepreneur, Ntuthunko Shezi, has taken a unique approach to hacking agriculture. His company Livestock Wealth practices what he calls ‘crowd-farming’. Initially the idea was to pitch the idea of sponsoring cows to urban dwellers, to help farms cut costs. Initially 26 cows were put up for sponsorship online. Today, the company has 1,200 cows, making Livestock Wealth the country’s biggest producer of organic beef.
“Why should only the wealthy own the farm? Why can’t 200 people pool resources and share in the profits?” he asked.
Livestock Wealth even allows customers who can’t afford a whole cow to sponsor part of it. “We’ve heard stories of guys who’ve started their own WhatsApp groups to talk about the cow they all sponsor,” says Shezi.
One of the afternoon’s highlights was a talk on the potential and possible impact that indoor farms could have in this country. Since they’re essentially customisable agricultural environments – farmers can control air-flow, watering, the type of light waves that move through them – and they’re incredibly green (pretty much all the water that isn’t absorbed by the crops can be recycled, for example), they can grow pretty much any crop. Those crops can even be engineered to taste better too.
Not only that, indoor farms have the potential to create thousands of jobs, cut costs to food producers – production and transport, to name two – and use less of the land for farming.
An imperfect system
On a darker note, a lot of the speakers also agreed that food security will become a much higher priority in the future – global population is set to reach around 9.7 billion people by 2050 – and current attitudes and farming practices need to change to meet this challenge.
The main issue that emerged from the afternoon of presentations centred on the need to fix the food system, to both create a fairer more sustainable farming industry and make food more affordable for all. Researcher and AfricaBurn director, Tola Okunlola, pointed out that decentralising the industry would like help small stakeholders and lead to better food security.
“If you buy from a supermarket you’re feeding a system that profits very few people at the cost of the many,” she said. “What we need is a rich tapestry of local food producers so we can move away from a system where what food is made and how it is made is dictated by corporate interests rather than basic human needs.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing farming in South Africa involves changing the attitudes of consumers and redressing the imbalance between food producers and the corporations that sell their wares. As author and food systems researcher Tracy Ledger said, consumers should stop thinking of themselves as a separate from the high levels of poverty and hunger in South Africa.
“In South Africa, we have a very serious problem in that three-quarters of South Africans are not able not meet the proper nutritional intake,” she said. “Millions go to bed hungry. Every day 15 children die of hunger in the Rainbow Nation.”
“We already produce enough food to feed the country, but who gets to eat and who doesn’t get to eat?” she said. “Mothers on social grants have to pay R15 a litre for milk and farmers get R4.50 per litre. We can never address rural poverty and equality without addressing this problem.”
“What we value most is corporate profits and we don’t value people,” Ledger said. “When we condone this poverty and starvation, we’ve forgotten our humanity. Our tech doesn’t need a fix. It’s our hearts.”
It’s a point that food activist Busiso Moyo made with aplomb.
“The calls that brought us together [here at TEDx] to fix the food system assumes that the system is broken,” he said. “It’s not broken. It’s profitable, it’s disproportionate but it is not broken. It’s working exactly the way its winners want it to. It needs to change.”
The land’s the thing
Yes, the topic of land expropriation came up. How could it not? It’s an emotive and divisive issue to be sure – a lot of commentators (armchair and professional) have weighed in and only the most naive of us could say it’s not a political playing chip for some.
But the speakers at TEDxJohannesburg who addressed it did so in a way that cut through a lot of the fog surrounding the issue. Moyo placed it in the context of dencentralising the control of the farming industry from an unfair system and placing power back into the hands of food producers – you know, the people upon which we all depend to survive.
“Change needs to happen soon, or its impact will be felt by all of us, starting with the poorest. Remember, the Arab Spring initially began as a food riot,” he said. “Land is at the centre of this change. The only way we’ll achieve food security is to produce more food. Land redistribution then, is non-negotiable.”
Farmer and entrepreneur Thato Moagi concurred. Land reform, she said, is going to happen, but it has to be a solution for South Africa’s farming industry.
“The land that’s in production should stay in production,” she said. “[The issue] should also be used less as a political agenda and more as a resource that every one can help realise its potential.”