KwaZulu-Natal’s agriculture and food production in this time of floods

What we witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal over the past couple of days is heartbreaking — the loss of lives and the destruction of businesses are unbearable. As President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out in his address to the nation on 18 April: “All parts of the province were affected by the rainfall, with the entire Ethekwini metro and the districts of iLembe, Ugu, King Cetshwayo and uMgungundlovu being most affected.”

I am yet to get a complete picture of the damage in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors. Still, I want to make a few points about KwaZulu-Natal’s contribution to South Africa’s food sector and whether the country is at risk because of the damages in the province.

KwaZulu-Natal is a significant producer of various agricultural products such as sugar, fruit, milk and poultry. Estimates from the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) show that about 30% of South Africa’s dairy herd is in KwaZulu-Natal, and significant volumes of chicken eggs and pigs are produced with a 12% share each. Almost 81% of the country’s sugar is produced in the province, which, if not produced nor transported, will have economic repercussions for the entire industry.

The province also serves as an entry for imported food products. To again quote last night’s words of Ramaphosa: “The Port of Durban is one of the largest and busiest shipping terminals on the continent and vital to our country’s economy — it has been severely affected. Access to the port has been disrupted by flooding and extensively damaged the Bayhead Road, which links the Durban Port Operations to the rest of the country.” 

This is a significant trade risk. 

Recent communication from Transnet suggests that there is progress in resuming the operations and alternative routes to the port.

To people who might have questions about whether the destruction could have spillover to much of South Africa’s food security, my initial thoughts are that if the government, Transnet and logistical companies continue working effectively at finding alternative routes to the port, then we should not have a near-term food security concern for the country. 

KwaZulu-Natal is not necessarily the epicentre of agriculture in South Africa. Provinces in central South Africa — the Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo — hold far more critical positions in the country’s food system. This is because of their abundant agricultural production and food processing capacity.

Maize meal and wheat flour, both staples to most South African diets, are primarily produced in the Free State, Mpumalanga, North West and the Western Cape. These provinces account for more than 60% of the production of each of these grains and process over 50% of them.

KwaZulu-Natal processes roughly 8% of the 11.5 million tonnes of maize consumed in South Africa each year. In wheat, KwaZulu-Natal processes about 21% of the annual consumption. The numbers vary per product, but the point here is that food supply chains are not concentrated in one province. Therefore, the devastation in KwaZulu-Natal, in the near term, at least, holds minimal risks to food security in much of the country.

KwaZulu-Natal’s role in trade

Although KwaZulu-Natal is not a leading producer of food domestically, it plays a critical role in connecting South Africa’s food system with the international community through the Port of Durban. Thus, the current disruptions weigh even more heavily on businesses and farmers. On average, 75% of the country’s grains are transported by road annually, which are in terrible shape because of excessive rains and generally poorly maintained roads in many small towns. 

These are largely exported through the Port of Durban. The same is true for imported food products such as rice, wheat and palm oil, among other products. The volumes are also large for horticulture, specifically citrus, a leading exportable agricultural product in South Africa. 

So, the damages in KwaZulu-Natal, in this sense, will be felt across the country’s agricultural economy. In the case of citrus, South Africa is at the start of its export season, which makes conditions even more difficult for the industry.

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