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Joint Ventures in the Flag Boshielo Irrigation Scheme, South Africa: A History of Smallholders, States and Business

by Barbara van Koppen, Barbara Nompumelelo Tapela, Everisto Mapedza in 2018

In the global debates on the modes of farming, including irrigated farming, that are viable for the majority of rural people, three models prevail: (i) smallholder family farming; (ii) farming led by agribusiness’ capital, technologies, and forward and backward linkages in an estate mode; and (iii) agribusiness-led farming in an out-grower mode. In South Africa, these three and more modes of irrigated agriculture have been implemented. In the colonial era, in most of the country, the state supported a white-dominated estate mode of farming based on wage labor. Smallholder family farming remained confined to black people in the former homelands. Smallholder irrigation schemes in the former homelands were out-grower schemes, managed by the colluding apartheid state, white agribusiness and irrigation industry. Since independence in 1994, the search for viable modes of farming and irrigation is high on the policy agenda. This is part of the envisaged transition of the state into a tripartite constellation of citizens, state and service providers that delivers accountable, outcome-based services. 

Smallholder irrigation schemes in former homelands face particular challenges in this transition. One of the piloted solutions is a blend of the estate and out-grower mode of farming: the joint venture. Smallholders pool their plots and hand over the land for management by a strategic partner from the agribusiness with capital for inputs, technologies, and linkages to input and output markets. The government ensures the construction of irrigation infrastructure. However, the results of this option were mixed. As a contribution to the search for viable modes of smallholder irrigated farming, this report analyzes the events and outcomes of smallholder irrigation schemes in former homelands where joint ventures were piloted. The method used is an in-depth historical case study (or ‘biography’) applied to the Flag Boshielo irrigation scheme in Limpopo Province. Situated on the riparian strips along the Olifants River, the overall scheme consists of a row of 13 smallholder sub-schemes (or ‘farms’) of about 100 hectares (ha) each on the right bank and one smallholder sub-scheme on the left bank. Six joint ventures have been implemented since 2001; three, which had started in 2009, had discontinued by 2012. The report starts by tracing the early dispossession and later resettlement of black smallholders under the gendered apartheid policies of forced removals, divide and rule to break resistance, food security, and white agribusiness and irrigation development. In these out-grower arrangements, smallholders were food secure, but not more than laborers on their own fields, while subsidized parastatal development corporations managed inputs, production, irrigation, storage and sale of the produce.

The report concludes with recommendations on how to further operationalize these policies. For joint ventures, recommendations include a robust bilateral contract between the strategic partner and smallholders with clear goals and enforcement of employment generation, production and marketing skills transfer and contacts, risk management and internal governance. Support to exchange among peers is also recommended. Further, smallholders in joint ventures and other public smallholder irrigation schemes would benefit from stronger land tenure arrangements backed by the government. Government support is also key to diversify irrigation technologies for women and men smallholders. Lastly, further comparison of different joint ventures and between joint ventures, smallholder schemes, and the continuing spontaneous initiatives in the Flag Boshielo irrigation scheme and elsewhere, will shed more light on viable modes of irrigated farming that achieve job creation, food security, poverty alleviation and skills development.