An ambitious plan to develop Gauteng’s West Rand into an agri-industrial hub, primarily producing high-value crops for domestic and export markets, is starting to take shape and is expected to be officially launched during the first quarter of 2019.
The initiative has been branded ‘Bokamoso Ba Rona’, Sesotho for “Our Future”, and included as one of the flagship projects unveiled as part of the Presidential Jobs Summit framework agreement, released in October.
Leading precious-metals miner Sibanye-Stillwater, in conjunction with Far West Rand Dolomitic Water Association and the Merafong municipality, has agreed to contribute to the programme 30 000 ha of arable, albeit non-contiguous, land to the venture, running 50 km north to south and 30 km east to west, as well as built infrastructure, including warehouse and training facilities. These facilities will be re-purposed so that the programme can effectively support the participants and provide value addition opportunities through agri-processing and distribution.
The area also has access to an ample supply of water, owing to the fact that millions of litres are being pumped from underground mining operations, a portion of which could be diverted for agricultural purposes once water-use licences are secured from the Department of Water and Sanitation.
The programme is driven by a coalition initially conceptualised through the Mining Phakisa, and will integrate pre-existing initiatives that are being driven by the founding principals in the coalition, namely the Gauteng Infrastructure Financing Agency, West Rand Development Agency, Sibanye-Stillwater and the Far West Rand Dolomitic Water Association. The Public Investment Corporation is committed to fulfilling the role of anchor investor of the programme.
Should the full area be converted to high value, labour intensive agriculture it is estimated that it will represent an investment of about R15-billion.
Mining Phakisa coordinator Edwin Ritchken tells Engineering News Online that a preferred bidder has been identified to fulfil the role of programme and fund manager for the scheme. In addition, several prospective farmers have responded to a recent request for information expressing interest in conducting various types of agricultural activities in the area.
The programme and fund manager will be Bokamoso Ba Rona’s implementation partner and will be responsible for development of the strategy and business plan, including the establishment of programme infrastructure and the selection of farmers and agribusiness investors under the oversight of the founding partners.
Holistically planned programme resources will promote the sustainability of the individual commercial operations and assist in overcoming barriers to entry that have been experienced in transforming the agricultural sector of South Africa’s economy with a critical objective being the growth of agricultural industrialists and small scale businesses.
The objective, Ritchken explains, is to support the West Rand District’s intent to diversify the local economy and create substantial levels of sustainable employment by building a sustainable post-mining economy in a region where gold production has been on a declining trend for a number of years and where unemployment is on the rise. This point has been underlined by Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman, who describes the development of sustainable local economies beyond mining as a “critical imperative” for the area.
Bokamoso Ba Rona is also part of a larger national aspiration to re-establish the agriculture sector, which in 1998 accounted for 18% of employment in the economy, as a key jobs driver, as is the case in most other middle-income economies.
“Agriculture accounts for around 39% of employment in the average middle-income country, compared with about 5% in South Africa,” Ritchken says, describing South Africa’s agricultural-employment underperformance as a key structural reason for the country’s unemployment crisis.
Part of the reason for South Africa’s low levels of farm jobs is predominance of low labour-intensity crops, such as maize. For this reason, the western Gauteng agri-industrial cluster will actively support farmers willing to produce crops such as pecan nuts, tomatoes, carrots, berries and fruits that are “literally over a hundred times more labour intensive” than maize farming.
Ritchken does not discount the possibility of some maize being integrated into the scheme, however as an input into a broader value chain.
The potential for exports from the hub is enhanced by the fact that the region is serviced by the N12 from Johannesburg to Potchefstroom, which connects with the highway to the OR Tambo International Airport, in Ekurhuleni. There is also rail infrastructure connecting the territory to the economic heartland of Johannesburg, little over 100 km to the east.
The stakeholders supporting the initiative are also keen to ensure that it is aligned with renewed efforts to ensure that more black South Africans have access to productive agricultural land. The issue is at the heart of current debates about whether to amend the Constitution to enable government to pursue land expropriation without compensation in certain instances.
“We have not finalised the mechanism for ensuring that key land parcels created as part of this initiative are transferred to black famers and communities.”
It is notable, commented Ritchken, that this programme goes way beyond Sibanye-Stillwater’s social and labour plan commitments. As Froneman commented, “Sibanye-Stillwater recognises the value of participating in a powerful public-private development coalition which has the skills, networks and balance sheet to drive a catalytic impact on the economy, rather than focus exclusively on limited compliance requirements.”
Froneman adds that land reform initiatives have made it abundantly apparent that successful commercial agri-industrial operations depend on far more than access to land alone. “As such, it is heartening to note the level of cooperation and alignment between the partners, which represent serious commitment from business, local government, national government and the investment community.”