Botswana should not be left behind in the fast-moving African train to become a global player in agriculture. There are countries in Africa, led by South Africa where agriculture is a massive undertaking – in contribution to the economy, in commercial terms and also in terms of food security. In those countries, yields are growing. Animal breeds are also improving so much as to match the best in the world.
And the downstream related industries re growing in size and complexity.There are encouraging signs that Botswana might just be ready to play a role. Meat supply in Botswana is getting liberalized. For a long time, meat export was the exclusive purview of Botswana Meat Commission. Liberalisation and general opening up of the downstream chain supply might just have the revolutionary effect on the sector that has otherwise been experiencing a decline.
The biggest reason for optimism has to do with the growing enthusiasm among the youth to join agriculture. Of recent youth are especially taking to agriculture. And unlike their parents they are doing it full time – not as a pastime hobby. And this represents a paradigm shift. The youth are bringing with them energy, dynamism, curiosity and adventure. Botswana’s agriculture, like the rest of Africa needs to adopt new technologies. The sector needs people who are open-minded. With the youth joining, the sector stands to benefit from technology because Botswana’s youth are technology savvy. And are generally educated. They are more travelled and would have seen elsewhere what works best.
What is most gratifying and indeed encouraging is that the youth who are joining the agriculture sector are doing so not because of government. In some instances they are joining the sector in spite of the government. This is important because for agriculture in Botswana to be truly sustainable, the sector has to wean itself away from reliance on government subsidies which in the long run are counterproductive. Subsidies in Botswana have often have the effect of addictive drugs. The sector has been unable to work with these subsidies. And this is troubling. Of course, government will always have a role to play especially with regards to land use. But over involvement of finance, credit and capital by government has proved that it has its limitations.
Given the clear difficulties our government is in and also the growing demands, it is only natural that government will be pulling out and reducing its knee-deep involvement in agriculture. Already that is being shown in the subsidy scheme where government helps with ploughing and provision of seeds. The lack of clarity underscores the simple but scary fact that government is not being upfront much less honest with farmers. Field officers are thriving with the grey areas being created. Government can no longer cope with such a financial burden. Government should concentrate on its regulatory oversight. When done well regulation safeguards farmers, the consumers and the market. What is crucial though is for government to avoid over-regulation, which often kills innovation and is generally counterproductive.
Broadly, government concern should be limited to areas of hygiene, public health, international trade compliance and of course ethics in production. More technology, not less is what we need. Botswana’s traditional farmers have generally been small holders. This has passed from one generation to the other. It also meant that going commercial was never an option for many of them. This is clearly changing. Young Batswana are undoubtedly more ambitions than their forebearers. This means commercialization is now a possibility. For the country it means at long last competitiveness is a reality that is within reach. And more importantly food security is no longer just an academic exercise. Young Botswana farmers are willing to embrace change, that includes economies of scale, for as long as money is to be made. In short, more than their parents they are more business-minded.
This is very encouraging. At the moment yield remains very low in Botswana on account of various reasons, spelt above. Technology will increase productivity and also production. There is no doubt that harnessing more technology, not less could in the end lead to cumulative job creation.