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Rural economies: It’s not only about farming


In a research project on Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development PLAAS is exploring the different components of rural economies in South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe. While regional policymaking tends to focus on farming and agriculture as the main driver of rural economic development, this research aims to examine multiple aspects driving rural economies, including not just farming, but also for example, food processing and produce trading, along with, other contributors to rural economies such as tourism. The project therefore tracks systems of exchange from the farm gate to the outside world (including to the international markets). The project aims to uncover the relationship between farm and non-farm employment to reveal the complex web of economic and social relations driving economies in the study sites.

After an initial pilot study, undertaken in the northern midlands area of rural KwaZulu Natal in September 2012, PLAAS held a workshop with over thirty regional policy makers in Tshwane (Pretoria) in February 2013 to explore how to further develop this project. Workshop participants included officials from departments of agriculture, economic development and planning in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi, as well as various technical advisors, academics, international donor representatives and NGOs.  


The workshop was introduced by Dr Tsakani Ngomane the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Office of the President (South Africa), who reflected on the challenges facing agricultural policy, following which the project brief was discussed, and innovative qualitative-quantitative methodology described. The subsequent session, successfully garnered the expertise of the gathered audience to probe the research focus, and reflect on its points of contact with contemporary policy questions.

Agricultural policy is often narrowly focused on food and farming, and does not necessarily consider the connections between agricultural production and the other aspects of the rural economy. Moreover rural development is not only about agriculture, indeed restructuring in agriculture often leads to workers being displaced out of agrarian employment. The workshop aimed to put these issues on the policymaking map, highlighting the contribution to employment of farm and non-farm activities, and the spatial configuration of value chains, agro-food institutions and markets.

As discussed at the workshop, the focal countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi) in the study are highly diverse, with varying levels of wage labour, corporate (particularly supermarket) food retail, and state intervention in agricultural markets. These research settings also have comparatively different configurations and spatial patterns of agriculture. During the workshop, questions of market access and power were revealed to take on specific national forms with, for example, South Africa’s powerful food retailers a relative exception to conditions elsewhere in the region.

The workshop participants engaged in robust debate concerning several key conceptual issues.  Conventional policy prescriptions to move small-scale producers up the value chain were critically examined: with some participants arguing injunctions to modernise smallholders and access formal markets were neither universally practicable nor even desirable for many. Other participants, referencing the illustrative case study material presented, drew attention to the gendered dimensions of rural production, and nuanced the debate by describing the manner in which many small scale producers produce for markets and own consumption.

Further points of conceptual discussion included how to define and specify the place of non-farm employment. Helpful reflection on how producers frequently straddle the farm (agricultural) and non-farm divide, made way for a useful group brainstorming session on the potential wide array of rural non-farm activities.  The question of how to examine the role of intermediaries or middlemen was equally complex and engaging.  Regional experiences such as the introduction of intermediate buyers of tobacco in Malawi, are being followed up in the research.

The research team was also challenged by participants to think more systematically about space, and understand the key spatial dimensions and relations in the diverse rural economies under study. Spatial dimensions simultaneously enable and constrain agrarian activity: agriculture is often patterned by the legacy of previous infrastructural investment (dams, storage silos, roads etc).  Further conceptual challenges included making sense of growing land constraints, and the often very different dimensions of scale and units of production across the region. These considerations stand alongside the familiar rural research challenges of temporality and seasonality in income flows (such as monthly social grant payments in South Africa, and harvest time elsewhere). 

Many of the policy challenges came into sharper focus in the day-long workshop, including how state driven efforts to effect rural development are often embedded in administrative rather than functional economic boundaries.  Incisive suggestions were made on how to drive the policy process, including a brainstorming of possible policy interlocutors.  Helpful insights to overcome the traditional chasm between researchers and the policy making community, included closer alignment with existing state typologies of producers, systematically feeding research back to research participants and finally building policy champions.  Emphasis was also placed on thinking about connecting with policy makers at local government level, who are focused on aspects of local economic development.

Since the workshop, area-based inquiry has begun to examine local multipliers and links in order to consider the prospects for employment-intensive forms of agricultural development.  In depth qualitative inquiry and network analysis has been undertaken, complimented by a short survey. The researchers will be exploring these initial findings in the coming months in various formats.

To keep up-to-date with developments on this project, please join our mailing list by selecting to receive updates about the project on our comprehensive mailing list form. To find out more about the project, check our project page.

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