South Africa’s tenuous food security situation

05 March 2015 | Nonkululeko Sikakane | Opinion

I watched the fanfare that followed the release of Oxfam’s “Hidden Hunger in South Africa” report in October 2014 with interest. Seeing this issue brought to centre stage in the media, and through campaigns such as the Mail & Guardian’s R6 Challenge, was a real Cinderella moment for the food security problem in South Africa.

Through my work with the WesBank Fund (which, together with FNB and Rand Merchant Bank, is part of the First Rand Foundation, the corporate social investment vehicle of the FirstRand Group Limited), I have noted the afterthought status that food security has been afforded within the South African development conversation. The WesBank Fund has provided support to one core funding area, food security and agricultural livelihoods, for the past seven years and is one of the few South African donors focusing on this area.

I have had time to consider why food security is not as chic to donors as education, unemployment or health and, frankly, the challenge is a complex one to understand in a country like South Africa.

To assist with simplifying the definition of food security, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) identifies four main dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilisation and stability.

Technically, South Africa is food secure, with the country producing enough food to feed all 53-million citizens. However, this does not translate to availability and access at household level. With the increasing price of food, Oxfam found that the poorest income groups were forced to spend close to 50% of their income on food. Furthermore, the oligopoly that has arisen in the food production industry (in which the market is dominated by a handful of retailers) means issues such as price fixing are a reality. The General Household Survey 2013 reported an average of 18.9% of South African’s involved in agricultural activities nationally.

The question many ask therefore is, “Why don’t more South African’s just grow their own food, in order to increase access and availability?” The reality, as we have learned through implementing the WesBank Fund’s Food Security Programme, is rooted in challenges around access to land, water, climate change and the perception that growing your own food is for the “poor,” with many households only engaging in it as a last resort.

The question of utilisation is even more complicated. Even when households have access and availability to food, how and what they are consuming is problematic. A recent programme evaluation report, prepared by Wits Commercial Enterprise for the WesBank Fund, showed an average dietary diversity score of 4.2 amongs households participating in the fund’s programme (the World Health Organisation standard is a score of at least 5). In fact, grains, sweet drinks and snacks that include sugar were the top three foods consumed within 24 hours of the interview, as reported by beneficiary households. It is therefore not enough to ensure access and availability of food but to couple that with an increase in households’ awareness of the nutritional value of the types of food they choose to eat.

The WesBank Fund’s Food Security Programme is looking forward to another five-year cycle of support in the sector. We have taken the lessons learned over the past few years to implement a programme that grows networks of micro farming households within targeted communities so that these communities are participating regularly and fully in local agricultural markets, deriving livelihoods from their agricultural enterprise.

The reality of the development space is that all social ills are created equal, but some are more equal than others. With the “Hidden Hunger” report now stale news I am hopeful, for the sake of 13-million South African’s estimated to be facing hunger, that it doesn’t mean it’s off our plates.