Promoting Community and Regional Food Systems in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

South Africa’s ex-Bantustans are an enigma. Several decades ago these areas were home to a vibrant peasantry which produced a marketable surplus of meat and grains. Presently, however, these same areas are largely dependent on food produced by large-scale commercial farmers far afield and sold via national supermarket chains; meanwhile, only a minority of rural households are surplus producers, and a large amount of the available arable land lies idle.

Eastern Cape is one of South Africa’s nine provinces, and is characteristic of these contradictions. Within the province’s ex-Bantustans of Ciskei and Transkei, there are about 600 000 subsistence households and 30 000 semi-commercial smallholders, most of whom live below the poverty line. However, in a country where arable land is in short supply, these two ex-Bantustans reportedly encompass about half a million hectares of unused, good quality arable land (BFAP, 2011). In sum, the land is there, and the market demand is there, and yet somehow markets do not successfully intermediate between local production and local consumption. Both consumers and (potential) producers lose out; the current situation represents a major inefficiency with significant economic implications.

Upon achieving multi-racial democracy in 1994, South African agricultural policy made an abrupt about-face, in which supporting small-scale black farmers suddenly took precedence over promoting the generally white, large-scale commercial farm sector, and in which attention to household-level food security superseded concern for national-level food self-sufficiency. Notwithstanding this visible shift, achievements have been modest. The small-scale farming sector is effectively static, and household-level food insecurity remains a pervasive problem despite the productivity and efficiency of South Africa’s commercial agribusiness sector.

Over these past two decades, there has been much concern for improving small-scale farmers’ access to markets. However, this has focused largely on how to improve these farmers’ ‘integration into modern value chains’, which in turn is generally interpreted to mean facilitating their ability to supply agricultural products to urban and/or export markets (e.g. Obi and Pote, 2012); for instance, when government commissioned a feasibility study in 2008 for the establishment of fresh produce hubs, the explicit purpose was to “confer a competitive advantage for this group of farmers to produce for established fresh produce markets all over the world” (MAC, 2008: 8). This is true of both government’s interventions, as well as of the bulk of academic research, except to the extent the latter has also included countervailing critiques of modern value chains and their implications for small-scale farmers (e.g. van der Heijden and Vink, 2013).

Only recently has government begun to think that the question of small-scale farmers’ market access should be considered in the context of South Africa’s abiding food and nutrition insecurity challenges. Notably, in March 2015, Cabinet approved the Agricultural Policy Action Plan (APAP), which among other things calls for the “development of local food economies” (DAFF, 2015: 16), thereby acknowledging that the gap between local production and consumption is a serious yet tractable market failure. Yet promoting ‘local food economies’, or what are elsewhere known as ‘community and regional food systems’, remains a theoretical possibility more than a practical programme.

The search for a more solid basis for promoting community and regional food systems/economies thus constitutes the primary rationale for the proposed research project. This can be translated into the following research project objectives:

Objective 1: To establish a detailed understanding of existing agro-food marketing arrangements and patterns within and to/from the Eastern Cape, with a particular focus on the ex-Bantustans.

Objective 2: To identify the key factors which inhibit a higher degree of market intermediation between food production and food consumption within the ex-Bantustans of the Eastern Cape.

Objective 3: To assess the feasibility of strengthening and/or introducing community and mid-tier distribution systems so as to improve the intermediation between producers and consumers within the ex-Bantustans.

Objective 4: To engage with relevant policymakers at provincial and national level so as to ensure that the insights from the research are appreciated.

 The research project is designed to capture the multi-scalar nature of existing food production and distribution systems, which means not merely understanding the component parts, but understanding how these systems function as systems. This requires a research strategy characterised by a number of complementary research activities. Further points of leverage include comparative analysis between different types of space (e.g. ex-Bantustan versus commercial farming areas) and different commodities, and attempting to understand how and why these systems are changing over time.

 This study is supported by a research grant awarded in August 2015 by the US Government’s Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Program in partnership with the South African Government. ARDRI would like to thank the US Agency for International Development, the National Academies (NAS), and South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology. ARDRI would further like to thank the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is a key partner in the study, specifically through its Community and Regional Food Systems Project.


BFAP (Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy) (2011). South African Agricultural Baseline 2011.,  accessed 4/10/2011.

DAFF (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) (2015). “Agricultural Policy Action Plan,” Pretoria: DAFF.

MAC (Mokgongoa Agricultural Consulting) (2008). “Feasibility Study for Establishment of Two Fresh Produce Depot Facilities Per Province in South Africa,” study commissioned by the National Agricultural Marketing Council and the Department of Agriculture.

Obi, A. and P. Pote (2012). “Technical Constraints to Market Access for Crop and Livestock Farmers in Nkonkobe Municipality, Eastern Cape Province,” in H. van Schalkwyk, J. Groenewald, G. Fraser, A. Obi and A. van Tilburg (eds.), Unlocking Markets for Smallholders: Lessons from South Africa, Wageningen Academic Publishers, The Netherlands.

 van der Heijden, T. and N. Vink (2013). “Good for Whom? Supermarkets and Small Farmers in South Africa - A Critical Review Of Current Approaches to Increasing Access to Modern Markets,” Agrekon 52(1).