Not a common story nor a trending event, those who have heard of Land Reform are likely to think either of the heart darkness that's Zimbabwe, or of the unbearable lightness of Europe.

Thirty years ago, South Africa (arguably) celebrated (a kind of) liberation from (the so-called) apartheid - kicking off with (amongst other things) a Land Reform program.

In a well governed world, this would be a great thing - an opportunity to transfer ownership of land to poor rural communities; a new chapter marked by dignity, economic activity and prosperity.

Alas... To say that things have not really gone that way is, well, the beginnings of a longer story.

I won't tell the sad and sordid version of it all but what I will say is that the old (white) farming class has somehow survived - has innovated and pivoted to make the most of an increasingly precarious position. In fact, many of the stronger traditional farming firms have made pragmatic moves; have partnered with (black) rural communities and have done well doing so. Sparse and rare as these cases may be, the so called "community-private-partnerships" have been a redemptive force in South Africa's rural reaches. 

We, LEFT Futures (Pty) Ltd, have facilitated a number of these innovative partnerships over the years. In some cases, we assisted communities to find capable farming firms and in others we assisted farming firms to find progressive communities; in a few cases we guided communities towards fairness and in many more, we trained farming firms to stay true.

Whatever the case, three decades of South African Land Reform has taught me two theorems:

  1. Where farming firms partner with landowning communities, all kinds of life changing economic impacts emerge.
  2. Where landowning communities go it alone, all kinds of stagnation and degradation take root.

I said I wouldn't let things get too dark and dusty so let's get back to the story - a story of pragmatism and partnerships.

For a number of years, we have had our eye on a particularly promising farming firm called Teespruit Agri (Pty) Ltd. Five years ago, this group of (white) farmers created a partnership with a (black) community to develop pecan orchards in the foothills below Swaziland. Teespruit Agri planted the first blocks of pecans three years ago and went on to reconstruct an abandoned old canal - abstracting water from the Teespruit River, three kilometres up stream - hugging the granite mountain slopes as it winds its way to the farm. Teespruit Agri installed extensive solar infrastructure, repurposed the derelict coal-fired tobacco barns and rebuilt the eroded roads and mitre-drains.

While going about preparing the next pecan planting area earlier this year, managers and community members looked on helplessly as a devastating bush fire cut through the valley - flaring from the tall Savannah tops and leaping across streams, rivers and roads. Destroying all but steel and stone, the blaze left Teespruit Agri broken and very alone.

We've run our own numbers on this project and the economics appear to be sound. Requiring new capital to revive and complete the development, the pecan orchards are likely to generate upwards of R50m per annum in nut sales with an operating profit of R25m or more per year. There are a bunch of other highlights too - like:

  1. Many of the community households practice small-scale agriculture on the farm and Teespruit Agri applies an infrastructure sharing policy - meaning that the community farmers can have water from the canal.
  2. With the farm fully developed, there will be jobs enough for nearly every community household who wants one.
  3. With rent to the community already exceeding R1m per annum, the completed development will see a ten-fold increase in the community’s revenues.

If the farming venture is going to be so profitable, then why crowdfund? 

It's a tricky paradox of redistribution... there is no finance available for Land Reform farms.


Allow me to explain:

South African policy prohibits the use of Land Reform farms as collateral for any kind of lending. Banks in any case want nothing to do with this anomalous thing in the economic landscape. And investors? Well they too have little time for anything that does not immediately and easily pass the smell test. "You wanna talk about communities and Land Reform; about politics and policy... Nee dankie! Rather not."

Of all of the brave farming firms we have seen over the years, and from all of the bleeding heart communities who've nearly brought us to tears, this particular project - with the beauty, the energy and the fullness of the story - is the one we can't let go.

Yes there will be others - probably a great many. But right now, we call your attention to Teespruit Agri; to Mpumalanga Province; to South Africa.

We will