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    Micro-milling: An obvious solution

    By Maximilian Pichulik, as published in The Daily Maverick

    The deregulation of the maize industry in the 1997 had the opposite of the desired effect and competition actually decreased and milling and delivery costs increased. But there is a solution with more benefits than just immediate better prices.

    My agriculture colleagues joke by telling me that grain milling is the second oldest industry in the world.

    Their smiles reduce to a smirk as they explain how, after deregulation, South Africa’s food oligopoly has reached its radical economies of scale and technological efficiencies at the expense of smallholder farming. To my surprise, I discover how important milling is to the heart of agriculture and food production and how the demise of its “profession and art” hurts all of society in some way.

    They tell me this is a problem because with an ever-fluctuating globally based maize price, price increases in the local market are almost always immediately passed on to the consumer, while price decreases lag as long as possible and are absorbed as profit for the food industry.

    They add that retailers would welcome new entrants, since there are effectively only three main suppliers to choose from, who are caught up in almost continuous price fixing scandals. … All while, the price of oil hits $100 per barrel, large-scale milling equipment starts to age and intense labour pressure is forcing government to assess whether serious structural changes to the agricultural sector aren’t necessary to stem the tide of food price inflation.

    At an emotional level, it is easy to look at this snapshot of South Africa’s large agricultural problems and lay blame on South Africa’s large commercial oligarchs. But, in fairness, the trend of industrialisation and consolidation was global in nature and anyway, we need the big players now more than ever to maintain stability in our economy. And for this reason, government will protect them in the short-term.

    Solutions and innovation, however, won’t come from the establishment. It will be new models and entrants that will shift the agriculture sector towards the future. A new wave of entrepreneurial innovation needs to grip the food value chain as it has the technology sector.

    And so my agriculture colleagues’ smiles return as they explain how “a silver bullet” that South Africa’s agricultural sector needs, may be the reinvigoration of micro-milling industry and more broadly a return to “what once was” within the context of 21st century global value chains.

    Bigger is not always better

    South Africa has the largest and most sophisticated industrialised farming and agri-processing capabilities in Africa and the country’s strong road, rail and port infrastructure attest to why the industrial-scale model should work here. And it does for some, but not all.

    When looking at the agricultural sector’s employment statistics, we see that its share of total jobs has dropped from 10.6% in 2002 to 4.7% in 2012, equating to roughly 30,000 jobs lost each year over that period. This trend has been influenced by a variety of factors, but it has been fundamentally driven by the industrialised nature of the sector; small farms now only represent 10% of overall production in South Africa. In a country facing 25% unemployment nationally and 52% in rural areas, this is not a favourable trend.

    What’s more, agriculture’s negative employment trends have had other negative impacts by fuelling a rural-to-urban migration. Today, over 60% of the country lives in urban centres compared to just over 50% in 1990. This rapid rate of urbanisation has brought increased demands for welfare support, urban food insecurity and rising crime levels. These migration patterns have been particularly problematic for smaller cities, which do not have the civil or economic capacity to absorb so many new entrants.

    Agricultural industrialisation has hurt those that have stayed in the rural areas as well – primarily from a food affordability standpoint. Highly refined maize meal is the cornerstone of the South Africa’s food industry and also the food staple for many South Africans and most poor South Africans, of which there are 11-million chronically poor in this country, 80% of whom live in rural areas. But because of how the maize milling industry has shifted and been restructured over time, those who rely most on this key food item end up paying more for it than their wealthier urban counterparts.

    We’ve also experienced increased levels of protest action in municipalities such as De Doorns and the widespread use of seasonal workers on farms to reduce costs. Unions and agriculture sector bodies are starting to say that the long-term sustainability of agriculture is under threat in South Africa. As a society, we should stop looking at symptoms and putting Band-Aids on the problem. We need to start addressing systems, which need shifting.

    An explanation starts with the deregulation of the maize industry in 1997. The government’s intention was to increase competition across the value chain for maize products. The actual result was the opposite. Due to the capital intensity of maize-milling, deregulation solidified a 60-year-old oligopoly by forcing the concentration of the entire maize supply-chain around the country’s three largest milling facilities, as owned by the big three located in Kroonstad, Krugersdorp and Randfontein. Existing privately owned mills were consolidated and merged onto larger, sites while regional mills gradually disappeared.

    Randfontein, where the largest mill was based, became the centre for grain trading on the SAFEX grain market and a new maize pricing structure was set, based on the theoretical cost of delivering the product to Randfontein from its storage facility. As a result, maize silos started to consolidate around this new commercial centre and the rest of the industry followed suite. Small farmers across South Africa, who once provided maize to hundreds of local mills and the big three’s former regional plants during regulation, were crippled under the new structure by the cost of transporting their product to the large commercial mills. In turn, the large mills found it inefficient to deal with small maize producers.

    This is why today, in spite of South Africa’s favourable climate for maize growing, approximately 83% of all of the country’s maize comes from only three provinces – the Free State, Mpumalanga and North West – and why 65% of the nearly 5-million tons of maize meal consumed each year in South Africa by the domestic maize meal market is produced by only three companies.

    However, the craziest thing is that transport and logistics can account for close to 35% of the final cost of maize products. Therefore consumers in rural Eastern Cape pay significantly more for a 5kg bag of super maize meal than patrons of a central Johannesburg grocery store. This results in roughly a 20% price differential, according to the National Agricultural Marketing Council’s August 2012 report.

    The new “old” opportunity

    To me, there is something deeply wrong with our society if we consciously enable a system where the poorest in the population pay the highest prices for their staple food source.

    But what if we began localising the maize (and wheat) value-chain, particularly in rural areas? This would significantly reduce transport needs and costs and positively impact final product prices for consumers by at least 20%.

    What’s more, putting up a network of micro-mills in rural South Africa could be a radical innovation, creating thousands of downstream jobs and driving job creation to South Africa’s most poverty stricken areas, since on average, each new mill would need to be supported by 3,000 hectares of (ideally, within a 100km radius of each mill) farmed maize and 25 to 30 mill workers.

    The South African Department of Trade and Industry has caught on. Recognising the potential benefits of micro maize-milling projects for food security and job creation, the DTI has made these projects a priority for its Manufacturing Investment Programme. So far, it has committed R60-million of grant funding and reports to have created 740 jobs and retained 1,100 more through these initiatives. But to shift our food system, an entire movement is required.

    And even outside of the DTI, there is some localised infrastructure in place already. Not quite the couple thousand mills there used to be decades ago before industry regulation kicked in, but currently, there are an estimated 180 micro-mills dotted throughout South Africa. These can process one to five tons of maize per hour. The problem is they have not typically been able to produce the high quality super maize meal that sells to the consumer market. Rather, they have produced the less popular lower-quality “special” maize meal for sale to consumers and coarse animal feed, which sells at a much lower margin than consumer-quality maize products.

    With improvements in technology over the past 10 years, micro-mills now have the potential to generate more than 60% premium quality “super” maize-meal and an additional 10% to 15% of the slightly more coarse “special” meal with the right equipment. The remaining product can still be sold on as animal feed.

    Localisation in the context of agriculture cannot only be created through the re-distribution of inputs and products, but also the participation/shared ownership of local communities and emerging farmers. Agriculture, like mining, needs to shift to a construct of shared value creation. In reconstructing these value chains, we need to break the construct of employer vs labour and create the notion of “partnerships and shared interest”.

    At a structural level, if one recreates food value chains, it has to be done through a values-based and ethical approach. In the food value chains of the future, racism and abuse are punishable via access to opportunities and markets and incentives are rewarded through productivity and efficiency.

    The bottom line is food localisation has to happen in South Africa to help alleviate some of the very serious socio-economic issues the country faces. Micro milling provides an opportunity to do this without charity or hand-outs, without heavy government intervention; rather, with a sustainable market-based solution… with the potential to make expansive financial returns and achieve social gains at the same time.

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