The contribution of subsistence farming to food security in South Africa

by BAIPHETI, M & JACOBS, P, 2009
Research report, Centre for Poverty Employment and Growth, HSRC 31 March 2009

Poor households obtain food from markets, subsistence production and transfers. In the past, rural households produced most of their food, while urban households purchased most of theirs. However, both urban and rural households have increased their dependence on market purchases, for up to 90% of their supplies. Consequently, food expenditure can reach 60–80% of total household income for low-income households in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This trend could be mitigated by promoting subsistence/smallholder production. However, productivity in the (semi-)subsistence sector is extremely low, which may explain why both urban and rural households are not interested in agriculture. Productivity can be improved by increasing access to assets and inputs, such as land, water and human capital. But assets in sub-Saharan Africa are limited, as evidenced by unsustainably small and falling farm sizes, degraded land, and negligible investment in irrigation, in addition to poor health and education. Subsistence agriculture can play an important role in livelihoods among the rural poor. Farmers can be encouraged to pursue sustainable intensification of production through the use of improved inputs. This will require a dramatic increase in the use of fertilizer, organic inputs and conservation investments, combined with the development of well-functioning input and output markets. Access to off-farm income is also important, as it is used to purchase farm inputs and investment. Finally, cost-effective ways should be identified to improve access to inputs by improving delivery, and assisting farmers to earn cash to purchase these inputs