31 December 2019. – That’s the day the world as we know it changed. According to the World Health Organization, the first reported case of the current outbreak of COVID-19 was first reported from Wuhan, China, on New Year’s Eve. Little did we know it would really be a “new” year.
A year like none other, that ushered in the dawn of a new dispensation. Fast forward to 27 March 2020, when a national South African lockdown was announced for 21 days. Today is exactly one year, one month and nine days since the start of the lockdown. That is 384 days longer than what was initially forecasted. As we gather here today, in my midst and virtually from all corners of the world, 5 May 2021 marks day 405 of the South African national lockdown.
What nay-sayers described as “a little cough” or “conspiracy” – ended up with South Africa’s economy losing about 2.2 million jobs in the second quarter of 2020 during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Don’t even get me started about the over 3 million covid-related deaths worldwide, with around 55,000 such deaths emerging from our loved ones, friends, colleagues and fellow compatriots of our beloved South Africa.
In as much as current and future generations will never forget the New Year’s Eve of 31 December 2019 for being the day that allegedly started it all – Africans will never forget Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2020 for that is the time it is believed that the first case of COVID-19 was reported on the African continent, in Egypt.
Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that today is a day that future generations, yet unborn within us, will never forget. Unbeknown to you, you are sitting at what is the unfolding of a new chapter in not just the South African potato industry, but for the African diaspora.
This is the day that our future selves envisioned in our highest dreams. The day when hope whispered against all odds – and we took up arms, united and answered the call. This is no ordinary day or a typical inaugural event for the sake of ticking boxes. 5 May 2021 is a day history will remember for rewriting the trajectory of our industry – and your presence here today is significant. It cannot be business as usual. Today really is a game-changer. Stay put, to find out why.
- Honourable Dr Brylyne Chitsunge, Pan African Parliament’s Ambassador for Food Security in Africa
- Esteemed Speaker and Economist, Thabi Nkosi
- Chairperson of Potatoes South Africa, JF van der Merwe and board members present
- Registrar of the Agricultural Produce Agency Council, Francois Knowles
- Trustee of the Potato Industry Development Trust, Deon van Zyl
- Beloved potato producers, without whom, we would not be here
- Treasured constituents within our entire value chain (from the producers, distributors, formal and informal traders, to our invaluable potato consumers)
- Senior government officials represented in this gathering
- Councils, market agencies, unions, buyers and traders
- Health and nutritionists, chefs and foodies
- Friends, mentors, sponsors and affiliates of Potatoes South Africa
- Fellow colleagues of Potatoes South Africa
- Members of local, national and international press in our midst and virtually
- Ladies and Gentlemen
I would like to personally welcome each one of you in my midst and those watching online. This hybrid event is themed #WhenHopeWhispers because in the midst of one of the vastest global pandemics of this era, right here in the midst of what seemed like a catastrophe, a yet untold story of hope emerged. We heard it. Like a seed, we saw it grow to the point that its roots grew deep enough to spread and emerge from the ashes.
Despite the rising input costs, unstable weather conditions resulting from climate change, and the overall uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, our approximately 570 South African potato farmers across 16 production regions, still managed to press on to produce fresh potatoes 12 months of the year.
In 2020, South African farmers planted potatoes on approximately 51 000 hectares, produced a total crop of 2.6 million tonnes and delivered 263 million 10kg pockets of potatoes. As an industry, I am pleased to announce that our per capita consumption has doubled in the last decade, and we are argued to be one of the most efficient users of resources. The South African potato industry is self-sufficient in fresh potatoes, even exporting to the SADC region.
Why is the potato industry significant, you may ask… I will respond with the words of Daniel Webster, which state that “when tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilisation.”
Hope in times of famine
The potato industry’s impact is not only of interest to the agricultural sphere, but overlaps to contribute towards the sustenance of life itself. It pushes towards contributing to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.” On 28 May 2020, the Annual World Hunger Day created by The Hunger Project, revealed that more than 690 million people were living in chronic hunger during an unprecedented global crisis.
Furthermore, it is disturbing to learn that 60% of the world’s hungry are women. The spread of COVID-19 meant that 265 million people were at risk of facing severe food insecurity or famine. One cannot underplay the role fruits and vegetables can play.
So much so that The United Nations General Assembly designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV). This was done to raise awareness, direct policy, and share good practices on the nutritional and health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption. The other goal is to highlight the contribution of fruit and vegetable consumption to the promotion of diversified, balanced and healthy diets and lifestyles; and to reduce the loss and waste of fruits and vegetables.
Nutrition, affordability, and accessibility are crucial to aiding in food security – and I am pleased to inform you that potatoes meet all these requirements! We are not just part of an industry with a wide value chain founded on the producers, distributors, formal and informal traders, and customers – we are here to raise an ode to South Africa’s number one vegetable and the global fourth most significant food-crop after maize, wheat and rice.
Hope in times of a health crisis
According to an article published on 10 July 2020 by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, “the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause a global health crisis… It is expected to be with us for a long time. [In South Africa] the country’s health system, as a result, has since taken a toll due to the number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients needing care.”
Authors Lucille Blumberg, Waasila Jassat, Mark Mendelson and Cheryl Cohen, respectively, discuss the need to prioritise and protect South Africa’s vulnerable population in an article published in the South African Medical Journal titled, “The COVID-19 crisis in South Africa: Protecting the vulnerable.” A key highlight from the authors is that “personal protection is key. Furthermore, persons with comorbidities need to work with their healthcare providers to optimise control of their illness.”
Last year we watched how health care systems across the world collapsed. It was common to see visuals of patients overflowing on the streets in stretchers, make-shift tents – and even bodies piling. At some point, there was an alleged story that received global coverage regarding a major anticipated COVID-19 spike in South Africa.
As news reporter Nicholas Reimann, wrote in an article for Forbes that was published on 8 July 2020, “South Africa’s most populated province, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is preparing some 1.5 million gravesites for potential mass burials, its top health official says, as coronavirus cases in the country begin to spike.”
Unfortunately, 2020 came and went with no COVID-19 vaccinations in South Africa. To date, as of stats released a few days ago, almost 293,000 people in South Africa were fully vaccinated. This accounts for a mere 0.5% of the population fully vaccinated. So, for many of us, the question of how to support a stronger immune system still resounds. – And believe it or not, even then, potatoes rise to the occasion.
Hope for taste, versatility, value for money – and better health and nutrition
In addition to regular hand washing, sanitising, social distancing, and the wearing of masks to reduce the risks of illness and disease, Claire Julsing-Strydom, a registered dietician declared that there is a lot we can do to strengthen our body’s natural ability to fight off illness by supporting a healthy immune system.
She compares our immune system to an army of soldiers always ready to defend the battlefield. The immune system is the body’s natural defence, working 24/7 to protect our bodies from diseases and infections caused by invading viruses, bacteria, and other germs.
Like soldiers who have a range of protective equipment and tools like riffles, tanks, grenades, if these germs do get into the body, the immune system uses white blood cells, proteins, tissues and organs like the skin to back up the immune system and attack the intruder.
Did you know potatoes contain some of the immune-supporting nutrients such as vitamin B6, B9 (folate), copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc? Potatoes also have calcium, iodine, phosphorous and manganese to offer up a full dose of nutrients important for the body.
Extensive work was done by Potatoes South Africa to an extent that the Heart & Stroke Foundation South Africa endorsed potatoes as heart-healthy when consumed as a carbohydrate, with its skin on, baked, boiled, or grilled in quality ingredients. Potatoes are not just tasty, versatile spuds but can form part of a heart healthy diet. Best of all, they offer significant value for money.
Hope in times of an “unprecedented labour market crisis”
The International Labour Organization described the year 2020 as a year of an “unprecedented labour market crisis.” According to their analysis of the labour market impact of COVID-19 by the International Labour Organization as published in January 2021:
- The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown caused 114 million people to lose their jobs in 2020.
- The International Labour Organization estimates working hours lost in 2020 were equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs, leading to $3.7 trillion in lost labour income.
- Although millions have returned to work, the International Labour Organization does not expect global working hours to return to pre-COVID levels in 2021.
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization is quoted at the start of 2021 saying that “the signs of recovery we see are encouraging, but they are fragile and highly uncertain, and we must remember that no country or group can recover alone.”
We, as Potatoes South Africa, could not agree any more. We cannot do it alone. Potatoes are not just sustenance, a tasty, versatile and convenient food source, but the South African potato industry employs between 50 000 to 60 000 temporal and/or permanent employees across South Africa!
Like many parts of the world, South Africa has a high unemployment rate. It is comforting to note that when you buy locally produced potatoes, you are helping to ensure that there are families who can go to bed with food in their stomachs. Support local growers. Your contribution makes all the difference.
For the second quarter (Q2) of 2020, Stats SA reported that the farming sector, along with forestry and fisheries, was a positive contributor to the country’s GDP, adding growth of 15.1% while the economy contracted by 51% quarter-on-quarter.
In addition to the sector’s above-average Q2 performance, providing hope where economic heft was wholly lacking because of the lash of lockdown, it is worth noting that potato production heralds 50% of the country’s crops, yielding at least R6.6 billion for South Africa’s economy and turning over about R12 billion.
Hope against hope
If ever there was a time to press on like never before towards the attainment of Potatoes South Africa’s strategic mission: Together Towards Excellence, it is now! We, by our presence here today at this inaugural State of the Potato Industry Address, do declare that the time to operate in silos is no more. We simply cannot do it on our own – and need all of us to rise to the occasion.
Hinged on Potatoes South Africa’s core businesses of market development and generic product promotion, research and development, industry information, and transformation – we cannot and will not slow down in the pursuit of fostering strong connections and bridging the gaps between our producers and all the members of our value chain.
To say 2020 was an unprecedented year filled with challenges, is an understatement. You may have seen our videos and our media releases showcasing grassroot interactions with farmers, informal traders, dieticians, and potato consumers to garner their views of 2020. Each faced untold challenges. Take, for example, how in 2020, for mainly the first few weeks of the national lockdown, the informal sector – which accounts for the trade of 66% of potatoes at national fresh produce markets – was restricted from trading.
Yet even in such challenges, we saw hope arising as the resilience of the potato farming family anchored deep. We saw technology play a greater role in the industry. We saw our farmers and farm workers’ relentless pursuit in feeding the nation. We still saw the industry playing a part in imparting knowledge in cutting edge research, skills training, paying for bursaries, consumer awareness campaigns, and played a role in the development of technologies to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers.
Among the top lessons we have learned is that we can, and will, rise above the challenges of the present and unknowns of the future if we stand together. In your hand is something – albeit time, mentorship, promoting awareness or whatever other resources that you can offer to partner with us to make an even greater impact to our industry. Now is not the time to faint or to lose heart.
Our arms are stretched wide open. Make no mistake, the potato industry as a whole took a knock, but all is definitely not lost. Here we are, ready to listen, learn, engage, network and inspire hope. We are here for you in person and virtually. We are also available on social media and hope you will engage with us on Instagram (potatoes_za), Facebook (@potatoesZA), and Twitter (potatoes_za).
We are reaching out on your screens and covering base on the ground. Visit our corporate website (www.potatoes.co.za) and our consumer website (www.potatonation.co.za), give us feedback on our radio, television and digital ads, tell us about you and how we can serve you in a love language that you understand.
Yes, Potatoes South Africa is a Non-profit Company under the Companies Act, whose main objectives include serving as the mouthpiece of the South African potato producers. Yet even beyond our statutory mandate, I, we, want to connect with you and forge real heart-to-heart connections founded on our common appreciation of South African farmers and potatoes.
Will you join us in answering the call for hope? Your fellow countrymen and women are depending on you. No skill is too small. No light is too dim. Here we are at your service. We need you. South Africa needs you. Africa is calling. Will you please, please rise up at a time as this?
#SOPIA Speech by Willie Jacobs, CEO of Potatoes South Africa