There is a tendency to treat social transformation and economic growth as two distinct matters, but Stephanie van der Walt believes that the two are inseparable. Both are non-negotiable, and the South African fruit industry is proof of that.
Stephanie is the first general manager of the newly created Fruit Desk at Agbiz. Here her mandate is to share her holistic understanding of trade, economics, development and agriculture in radial ways. She will represent the fruit industry in debates at policy and government level, communicating the complexities of international trade and treaties with the farming sector.
Lifting the lid on complex trade talk
The complexities of international trade and its seeming incongruities are encapsulated in the questions she often hears from local industry. For instance: why does Chile have a free-trade agreement with China and we don’t (because South Africa negotiates as a member of the Southern African Customs Union + Mozambique)? Or: Why doesn’t our membership of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc give us preferential trade access (because it is a purely political arrangement)?
Being tied to the wider region of Southern Africa in trade negotiations is cumbersome and causes frustration. But, she points out, it is much better to be organised than not. Moreover, as Zimbabwe amply demonstrated, destabilisation within the region is a loss to all.
“It is very important to participate in non-agricultural market access negotiations,” she says. “The time to focus on just one thing is past.”
Is agriculture worried about the country?
South Africans went to the national polls on 8 May. Many discussions, for instance on land reform or black economic empowerment in agriculture, were put on ice until after the election. Is the industry worried about the South Africa of 2019?
“There’s nobody who’s not vigilant. We’re keeping an eye on the situation, and that is also why the Fruit Desk was created: to be responsive to the time in which we are living. The industry has to be aware of what we need from national leadership and from the industry’s leadership, what we want to achieve and how to get there.”
Her background in development is unusual in the formal agriculture sector, but in her view, the two are a perfect fit. “Economic development is, per definition, the amount of people who can eat what they haven’t produced,” she points out. In China, a country where she has been shown around the agriculture sector as a guest of government, the maxim is: Agriculture first, and everything else will follow.
WTO dispute with the EU
The ball is currently in government’s court to decide how to proceed on the matter of a possible WTO dispute around the EU’s citrus black spot regulations. The South African industry regards this as a non-tariff barrier.
“Industry has taken it as far as it could. In my opinion it was inevitable that after all these years, it would move in some or other direction. All of the research has been done. Now it depends on the departments of trade and industry and of international relations and how they prioritise the matter.”
However, as a previous employee at the World Trade Organisation, she is careful about what the industry can achieve at a body that has made some controversial rulings before.
Doing a tremendous amount with a few people
What South African agriculture needs, Stephanie feels, is the wider communication of the sector’s data. Data that, for instance, demonstrate the efficacy of the many schools and early learning centres and clinics on farms. These are institutions initiated and funded by farming enterprises. Statistics show the developmental and economic impact of agriculture’s economic inclusion and transformation projects.
“The fruit industry works on many levels and in South Africa, we’re actually doing a tremendous amount with a few people,” she says.
Industries outside agriculture are keen to hear what agriculture is doing. The broader public is largely unaware of the fruit industry’s contribution to the economy and standing in the world.
“To protect yourself, you need to be visible. The fourth industrial revolution is all about data, and that’s where the agricultural sector is lacking,” she says. “Create a narrative, get data from the many projects the industry has on the go, show what you’re doing and get it out into the public domain and part of the public discourse.”
Keep calm and carry on …
“Our ability to keep calm and carry on is a big resource to local industry. We have a lot of expertise and innovation, but building our image and communicating that to the outside are areas in which the Fruit Desk can assist.
“When I was being interviewed for this job, I was asked what drew me to the fruit industry. I answered that it is its high levels of ethics and conscience. That really appeals to me.” – Carolize Jansen, Fresh Plaza
For more information, contact Stephanie van der Walt at the Agbiz Fruit desk at tel +27 12 807 6686 or email her at Stephanie@agbiz.co.za