Visiting researcher Malin Olofsson gives an update on her work in the north-east of South Africa.

My PhD research is situated within a larger project which examines whether and how value chain collaborations involving tree-crop farmers in Ghana (cocoa and oil palm) and South Africa (macadamia and avocado) can be made more equitable and inclusive ( My research focuses specifically on the social dynamics accompanying the process of tree-crop commodification amongst small-scale farmers in the former homeland of Venda in the Limpopo Province.

Within the last 10 years there has been a concerted effort from both state and private sector actors to support small-scale farmers with entry into the production of high value commodities such as macadamia and avocados. The National Development Plan has emphasised these two commodities as having both high growth and employment potential which has led to various schemes being implemented to support the entry of small-scale farmers. The private sector has also become active in supporting small-scale farmers involved in these commodity chains, most notably through the implementation of a statutory levy on macadamia in 2014, a portion of which is earmarked for supporting small-scale macadamia farmers. The general assumption that underpins the state and private sectors’ approach when it comes to supporting small-scale farmers is that with the ‘right’ package of support they will graduate along a linear trajectory towards becoming increasingly more commercially orientated and closely linked into global commodity circuits, largely modelled on existing large-scale commercial farmers in the area.

Who are these ‘small-scale’ farmers getting involved in these tree-crop commodity chains? Are there significant differences between these farmers and if so, what characterises these differences? Who is benefitting from these new commodity relations and how? These are some of the guiding questions that frame the first stage of my research. To explore these questions I focus primarily on the concepts of social reproduction and accumulation from a class-based perspective.

A survey was conducted with 80 farmers and followed up by in-depth interviews with 20 farmers. Initial findings show a high level of differentiation exists amongst small-scale tree-crop farmers.  The most important factors that differentiate farmers are the degree of livelihood diversification, the nature of labour relations and access to capital. Based primarily on these interlinked dimensions, a typology of tree-crop farmers was identified:

(i) Petty commodity producers – engaged in simple reproduction

(ii) Petty commodity producers – state assisted

(iii) Petty commodity producers – full time civil servants

(iv) Small-scale capitalist farmers

Those farmers with secure and regular additional income tended to have less productive farms, requiring cross subsidising from additional income sources. For these farmers farming is generally being practised as a lifestyle pursuit with the expectation to secure an additional income at retirement. The petty commodity producers without any additional income sources rely heavily on income from vegetable crops to cross subsidise their tree-crops with the expectation that they will be able to rely primarily on tree-crops as their main income source in the near future. In very few cases were farmers able to engage in accumulation or expanded reproduction. It was only the minority of small-scale capitalist farmers who were able to generate a surplus and engage in expanded reproduction. The key differentiating factor being that these farmers had access to substantial non-agricultural capital to establish and develop their farms.

These findings demonstrate the high degree of heterogeneity amongst tree-crop farmers both in terms of livelihood diversification and farming aspirations and objectives. Despite these differences, for the majority the expected returns from these new commodity relations have remained illusive, with most farmers highly constrained in terms of key resources such as water, capital and labour, thus being unable to engage in expanded reproduction or accumulation. The generally assumed linear trajectory of development from ‘small-scale’ through ‘emerging’ to ‘commercial’ farming that underpins interventions in this area has not been evident in this case. Instead farmers’ livelihood trajectories have moved in different directions, some being slowly squeezed out of these commodity relations due to changes in additional income sources, natural disasters and unsustainable external support initiatives. Others remain able to sustain their simple reproduction without accumulation while only a very small minority have been able to move into expanded reproduction – largely due to non-agricultural capital. Most farmers remain constrained by key structural factors.

The next step in my research is to explore how these new commodity relations are impacting on gender relations as well as household food production and provisioning.