Global Development Institute Blog

In the second of our Shifting South series, Stephanie Barrientos talks to Margareet Visser and Maggie Opondo. They reflect on the project and their research into horticultural value chains.

Shifting South investigated:

  • the rise of South-South trade through regional and domestic markets
  • what this means for decent work – especially women in precarious jobs
  • and looked at specific commodities and value chains in the horticulture and garment sectors in South Africa, Lesotho and Kenya.

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript in full below.


Stephanie Barrientos Hello, my name is Stephanie Barrientos, and I’m an Emeritus Professor at The University of Manchester. And we’ve been hearing a lot about global supply chains over the last recent months because of the problems of COVID. But in fact, there have been major shifts and issues in relation to global value chains for for a very long time, and particularly in recent years, with the shifting of exports from especially from Africa, away from Europe markets and increasingly towards other parts of the global South and Africa itself. Traditionally, Europe was the main focus of fruit and vegetable exports and these were largely coordinated by European supermarkets who have very strict standards on requirements on food safety and also in relation to social standards such as labour conditions, and that often poses issues and problems or challenges for producers in Africa. But what we’re now seeing as you’re getting a shift in the markets, the end markets for fruit and vegetables from Africa is a growth in African supermarkets, especially to coordinate these chains. And who also have some standards, but not necessarily the same types or same level as European supermarkets. So Shifting South is a research collaboration between the Universities of Manchester, Cape Town and Nairobi and collaboration also with the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK. And what we wanted to examine was as you’ve gotten these shifts and the expansion of the trade in Africa and in the global south and shifts in the growth of African value chains, what are the implications for the governance of decent work standards, for both wage workers and smallholders in fruit, fresh fruit and vegetables? And we focussed on South Africa and Kenya as the main research arenas. So what I want to do is to introduce the two research collaborators with whom I have been working Margareet Visser from the University of Cape Town, who led the South African Research and Maggie Opondo from the University of Nairobi, who led the Kenyan research. And to hear what they their initial understanding of the findings are in terms of what the future implications are for decent work in Africa. So firstly, just a sort of general issue that arose first. We’re seeing this increasing market diversification, particularly into Africa, the question for both of you Maggie and Margareet is whether these expanding African value chains would dilute or reinforce food safety and social standards. So first, Margareet, what’s your view from this perspective of South African fruit?

Margareet Visser Since 1994, when South Africa became a democratic country, the new government has promulgated good laws to ensure that Apple’s exported from South Africa are safe to eat for consumers in other countries. In terms of labour legislation the South African state has also implemented good laws to protect permanent farmworkers who previously had fewer rights and other workers in South Africa, but Stephanie, while the implementation of safety laws has been rigorous. It is monitored by the Perishable Produce Export Board, which is a very old established parastatal whose inspection service is recognised and accepted by the EU. The same cannot be said for labour regulation. Despite the South African government having a tripartite alliance with the Trade Union Federation Cosatu, the South African state has not done enough to protect farmworkers, especially temporary workers. Labour legislations enforcement remains weak due to underfunding by the Department of Labour’s inspectorate division. So and secondly, while South Africa has good laws to protect permanent workers in general, its laws fall short to protect the majority of workers that are now employed on non-permanent precarious contracts. So in every sector, the growth of non-permanent workers can actually be partially attributed to commercial pressure placed on farm’s profit margins, but big, powerful retailers both in the UK and EU, but also here in South Africa. While partly responsible for the increase in precarious work on farms UK and EU retailers, response has been to make the problem of poor working conditions of farmworkers that are farmers. They insist that farmers comply with standards, which is largely the same as the regulation enforced by the South African state or weakly enforced, I should say by the South African state and the state also insists that farmers complied with food safety standards. So despite the fact that the state already enforces these standards because private companies know that the state does is not a good job of enforcing it then implements the second layer of employers, sorry, a second layer of enforcement. And the upshot is that farmers have to pay ordered companies extra to prove they comply with private and public regulation, but they seldom get assistance from supermarkets to comply with standards. And farmers still comply, complain that pressure on their profit margins placed by supermarkets continue. Even if South Africa now already sell the bulk of their apples to non-UK and EU markets, they have to continue meeting EU and UK markets because they value these markets as EU and UK markets pay the highest prices. So it’s not it’s important to understand that it’s not possible for a farmer to ring-fence part of his orchard for the EU and UK market and say, OK, these orchards will only be picked for the for the UK market and all my other fruit is going to Africa. Their orchards are treated as if apples produced from these orchards are going to the UK and the EU. So the highest standards apply thtoughout the farm. However, if and when the point comes that South African farmers will find equally lucrative non-EU and non-UK markets, then the rationale to comply with standards would of course fall away as standards is costly and it’s also onerous to comply with. With a real farmers, will they treat their works better because they now export to other markets that maybe do not require these highly costly standards and do not place such pressure on the profit margins with the farmers, will then because this lower pressure on the margins treat their workers better is not a given. Think farmers will only treat their workers better if there is more organisation by farmworkers themselves. And as a result of such organisation, farmworkers can then start to bargain more effectively with their with their employers.

Stephanie Barrientos Well, thank you. That’s very interesting. So turning to Maggie in a Kenyan context, which is slightly different context to the South African context, especially because of fresh fruit vegetables, there are many more smallholders involved in production, what do you see in terms of this kind of relationship between the private standards of supermarkets and public regulation by government in terms of the governance of fresh fruit and vegetables, both food safety and also social standards for workers and smallholders?

Maggie Opondo Yeah. Thank you, Stephanie, for that question. And I would like to say that. Yes, in Kenya, it is similar to South Africa, but the difference, as you’ve said, is that the Kenyan fresh fruit and vegetable is mainly produced by smallholders. Nearly two-thirds of it, actually. And so what I see is that the impact of increasing market diversification is actually likely to reinforce food safety standards. With the social standards, it’s a mixed picture. For the different actors on the value chain, it depends on which actor. You see, for example, workers on large commercial farms that mainly supply global value chains and domestic value chains usually benefit from European supermarket’s social standards. And at the same time, you find that workers on these large farms are usually unionised and therefore they are protected by CBAs. So generally, if you look at those actors on the fresh fruit and vegetable value chain, they are OK. However, when you come to the informal workers who are mainly employed by the smallholders and they are more casualised and food safety standards that are applied there, like GlobalG.A.P, rarely include social issues. The focus has been mainly on the food safety standards and quality demanded by the European market. So these workers, the informal sector workers of smallholders, they really have a precarious nature of employment, and therefore they’re denied any sort of social protection. First of all, they’re very casual. They’re paid on a daily basis. And in most cases, sometimes they even other farmers, other farmers who are poorer and go to the other farmers to work for them. So that’s why I said it’s a mixed bag. For the food and food safety standards. Yes, that is likely to be reinforced because we see the introduction of KS1758 by the Kenyan government. Because it is focussing on the food safety standards and the social standards. Actually, the case KS1758, part two, is a public standard that was introduced in Kenya in 2019. And this was partly in response to the MR crisis in 2013. What happened was that the minimum the Kenyan fresh vegetables, mainly beans peas exported to the European Union did not exceeded the minimum residual level. And this was because the private standards of food safety in Kenya had failed to make sure that products which had not been certified do not get into the market. But there’s been a lot of of of of of, you know, back buying where when funds do not have enough produce, they go and buy from farmers when it’s certified at the same time at the Port of Exit, the implementation of inspection was not very rigorous. And so that found a lot of products finding their way onto the export market. So because of this, the Kenyan government reacted. And at the same time, locally, domestically, there were a lot of food safety scandals whereby most of our fresh produce there were media exposes, saying they’re mainly contaminated. There were too much pesticides were being told that most of our vegetables are being grown on, you know, sewers, public sewers, so that got the government thinking. And so you find that [00:13:27]KS1758 [0.0s] Part two actually develops a value chain approach by extending its scope to include all industry stakeholders, including growers, plant breeders, propagators, seed merchants, consolidators, transporters, shippers and cargo handlers were instrumental in ensuring compliance and sustainability along the chain. So you can see that KS1758-2 is more interested in having traceability on the supply chain. The Kenyan government also is trying to protect its reputation because Kenya is actually a leader of horticultural export to the European markets. And that MR crisis in 2013 really, really scared it. That’s why I say that with standards for food safety. Yes, that’ll be reinforced. Whereas for social, I don’t think so, because even when you look at KS1758. KS1758 is actually, you know, GlobalG.A.P., ETI and you know, an amalgamation of private standards and public standards, but the social aspects of KS1758 to date have not been given much attention. More attention is being placed on traceability.

Stephanie Barrientos That’s very interesting because that shows that both private and public standards in South Africa and in Kenya, are, but particularly in relation to food, seem to be strengthening. But there is still a question mark over whether the social standards in terms of private and public governance are really being affected. Research your research, both your research has tended to indicate that where workers and smallholders are better organised, they’re better able to to gain benefits if you like, from engagement in value chains. So, Margareet, could you let us know and tell us a little bit more about South African context, particularly as you mentioned earlier, a large number of the workers already employed on a casual and temporary basis. How easy it is for them to become better organised and to gain better benefits, capture some of the gains of their engagements in value chains.

Margareet Visser Well, Stephanie, the short answer is very, very difficult. At the moment, only about five percent, between five and 10 per cent, but in some areas as low as five per cent of farmworkers are organised by unions. And where workers are organised by unions that is also mostly workers in factory-like setups like pack houses and food processing plants. It’s a smidgen of less than a smidgen of of ordinary farmworkers that are organised by unions. where workers are organised by unions, and especially where unions have significant representation, especially in packhouses We generally see better labour conditions. But like you say the majority of farmworkers are temporary workers, so we see very little effort by unions to organise those workers. Unions complain that they struggle to get access to farms. Most of the farms are increasingly surrounded by security fences due to high crime rates in South Africa. But in addition to that, farmers have also historically been very reluctant to allow unions onto their farms. You can imagine if if a whole workforce strike in the middle of the harvesting season and the fruit is threatening to to rot on the trees, then that could be a huge economic loss for the farmers. So they try to really hedge their bets with security fences to try and keep unions out. So although though the trade unions community trade union community has repeatedly asked ethical trade organisations to introduce a standard that would set a protocol which would give unions access to farms to recruit workers for the unions. So far, that request has fallen on deaf ears. But like you said, Stephanie, lack of farmer worker organisation is also due to the fact that temporary workers are fearful that if they join a union, the farmer won’t employ them the next season. So precarious work in itself thwarts worker organisation and specifically worker unionisation.

Stephanie Barrientos It’s interesting, thank you. Maggie, you mentioned earlier that in Kenya on the larger farms, workers are more likely to be unionised, but smallholders have traditionally been quite fragmented. And I just wondered if you could send a bit more about and are there any changes taking place in Kenyan context, in relation to smallholder producer organisations and the organisation of smallholders, particularly in this context of shifting value chains?

Maggie Opondo Yeah, I think I’d like to say, thank you for that Steph. I’d like to say that, you know, as the domestic and international supermarkets expand their retail footprint within the African region, which we’ve seen in the last 10 years or so, smallholders are actually getting better opportunities of participating in the domestic value chains and regional value chains. However, there are basically two groups of smallholders. There are those that are organised into small producer organisations that would either be cooperatives in Kenya or what we call self-help groups. And then those who operate independently through market traders. The independent smallholders’ produce is mainly sold through arms-length intermediaries, which constitute a portion of sourcing by domestic supermarkets, which means they go through middlemen, they go through agents who in most cases really do rip them off. They come to the farm gate and offer them a price, and they are forced to take it because they are not organised into an organisation. And also, they are really likely to apply standards, even if their produced, which is usually sold to the leading supermarkets in Kenya. And these farmers, these fragmented farmers that you talked about Steph are really facing significant challenges. Some of these include market and price volatility. When there is an oversupply the middlemen, the agents really, really undercut them. And then, therefore, they get very poor returns. And remember, they’re also not practising good agricultural practise and therefore their incorporation into the value chain is very, very adverse. On the other hand, we have smallholders who are organising the cooperatives and self-help groups, and these are also increasingly supplying domestic and regional retailers. Previously, this small supplied mainly the export markets because the fresh fruit and fresh fruit value chain in Kenya is mainly supported by smallholders. As I say, about two-thirds of it. so they have been encouraged mainly by the government and other organisations. So you find that they are organised into cooperatives and self-help groups and within this organisation, you find that because when it comes to certification, the smallholders are certified in groups, whether it is GlobalG.A.P. or now the newly introduced KS1758. And at the same time, this organisation into groups has significantly enhanced their bargaining power. For example, if you look at the avocado farmers. Avocado farmers are organised into certain groups or cooperatives, and then this cooperatives, then they have a larger cooperative in Africa. Where they are also members. And these co-operatives are now, you know, negotiating in terms of the contracts they have, which covers all aspects of production, such as prices. What price are you going to pay at the end of it? The certification is done in a group. They are also given training, and the organisation of this smallholders into groups has also attracted, you know, funds from organisations such as DFID, Danida funding farmers to make them more visible and to give them greater bargaining power on the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain. At the same time, you find that this organisation of smallholders into groups does have certain gender implications. Particularly in the green beans and peas, which have traditionally been seen as women’s crops. So in Kenya, it was that the owner of the land is the one who registers who is registered as a farmer. That means that when the day comes at the end of the month for the produce, it is the farmer who is registered. Now because we live in a patriarchal society most women do not own land. So that has meant that the land will belong to their husband, who is the farmer, but now because of global standards like GlobalG.A.P. and also to increase traceability, all people who work on the fresh vegetables must be registered. So now increasingly, a lot of female farmers have been registered. Then also female farmers or family labour who are working, but were not documented. So this is giving them visibility. It is also giving them a voice. So. You can see that the integration of smallholders within the fresh fruit and vegetable value chain is really mixed, whereas on the one hand, the independent farmers are facing adverse in cooperation. But the more organised smallholders have actually experienced enhanced bargaining power and there is potential for economic and social upgrading.

Stephanie Barrientos That’s pretty interesting. So we can see many challenges, particularly for casual workers and small smallholders, but we can also see potential opportunities. And Kenya provides an example of where those opportunities are being, to some extent, at least for of some groups, seized. So I’d like to just talk a little bit with both of you about given we’ve got these expanding value chains more both private standards, but also increasingly public standards. What kind of initiatives are there any particular initiatives and especially those that African supermarkets are involved in that, do you think will help to promote the social side? Lots going on on food safety, but what what initiatives within Kenya and in South Africa do you think could really help to bolster the social standards for workers and for smallholders? So Margareet firstly, your perspective from a South African viewpoint.

Margareet Visser So, Stephanie, first of all, there already is a fruit industry value chain roundtable in South Africa and that comprises of government, farmer organisations and farmworker organisations. The roundtable, inter alia, includes a worker welfare group with trade unions from their organisations and state organisations like the Top Table Department of Labour can discuss issues such as work of housing and worker rights violations that affect farmworkers. So this forum gives farmworker organisations the opportunity to sit around the table and discuss issues with farmworker organisations and also with farmers, which I think provides these farmworker organisations some opportunity for negotiations. And without access to this forum I think trade unions are too small in the sector to demand the right to collective bargaining and to sit around a similar table with farmers to discuss labour issues. So I think there is a benefit of this round table for workers and work organisations more more importantly. A second example of the state aiming to empower farmworkers is by insisting that farms enter black empowerment initiative, such as giving workers a share in the farm of business before the state, would even consider awarding the farm farmer with a water licence and having access to water licences is critical to farmers in a water-scarce country such as South Africa, especially where expansion is key due to ongoing pressure on farmers profit margins by powerful retail trade partners. As a result, we’ve seen that farmers have entered black empowerment deals, deals with a workers to get a water licence. but often the workers who benefit from these deals are once again the permanent workers. And then also, sometimes these permanent workers have to wait years before they get any benefit, direct benefit from the deals. Then in the third place is also a master plan, which is being developed by the Department of Agriculture. It’s called the master plan for agricultural and agro-processing. And again, here one of the key aims of the master plan is to promote black economic empowerment in the sector. The focus is therefore to create more black farmers, which is a good goal in itself, given that the South African farmer is still dominated by white farmers. Everyone could also argue that the state should think of how the master plan can support and benefit ordinary farmworkers, especially temporary farmworkers. With other words, the master plan should try to achieve broad economic black empowerment. If better conditions of temporary workers say by giving them access to pension funds or medical schemes can, for instance, count towards the black empowerment scorecards of farmers that would either give them access to water or finance, such an incentive might go some way to improve the social conditions of precarious farmworkers.

Stephanie Barrientos Thank you. That’s interesting. So there are, despite all the challenges in South Africa, there are potential opportunities for better governance in future, the discussion of that. Maggie, you talked a lot about KS1758. So clearly that public governance is expanding, but you indicated that the focus is largely on food safety. What do you think the potential for governance within the Kenyan context and the context of African Value Chains, of decent work standards to improve conditions, particularly for those more informal casual workers you mentioned and for smallholders, who are less well organised?

Maggie Opondo Yeah, Steph. What I would like to say is that in Kenya, we don’t have a very organised but organised forum like the roundtable in South Africa. however, I’d like to give an illustration of how public and private standards are converging and whether this will improve social conditions for smallholder workers and smallholders themselves. Because if you look at the KS1758 is a very good illustration of a convergence between the private and public standards. Actually, as I indicated previously, the creation of KS1758 was in response to the MRcrisis and was largely a public move by the Kenyan government in collaboration with export associations and the European Union, which effectively funded the formation of the Kenyan Horticultural Council. And the draughting of KS1758, however, you find that the civil society which have been pushing for the improvement of social conditions were also very critical in stimulating the government response. So you can see this is a reflection of the interaction between private, public and civil society actors through the process of its development of KS1758. So I guess the Kenya Horticultural Council was created as a multi-stakeholder forum to discuss broader issues facing the industry across the horticultural sector. And by 2019, you find that the active members of the Kenya Horticultural Council actually included people like FPEAK, which is an association for exporters of fresh produce in Kenya. And you also found that the government research arm KALRO was also involved, kEPHIS the government inspectorate arm for fresh produce was also involved. And then, of course, we had the HCD, which was also involved as a public regulatory body. So when you look at KS1758, it replicates both private food quality, standards and social standards. But as I said. KS1758 is mainly being seen more as a food and safety standard, Looking at traceability, ensuring that quality reputation of Kenyan produce is maintained. And at the same time, the government has not turned a blind eye to the health crisis in Kenya because we have been saying that why should we make food safe for others but the food that finds its way to the Kenyan tables is no longer safe. And I think that’s why it has been very critical. However, when you come to the social standards. I really doubt that KS1758 will be able to do it. I think the private standards from the North are more likely to do it. Why is this? This is because the search to improve social conditions for workers is usually a demand from the consumers. The northern consumers demand that the produce that they eat is produced in an ethical and socially acceptable manner. However, and of course, this kind of produce attracts a premium. And the premium, the cost is passed onto the consumer. When you look at the scenario in Kenya, the consumers I’m sure would like to, but that they’re not willing to pay the cost because they can’t afford it. They can’t afford to pay for products that are ethically and socially acceptable produced. So, I don’t foresee a role of KS1758 in promoting improving the social conditions for smallholder workers and workers. I would rather we push for the private standards and indeed when during the course of our fieldwork, we met some avocado farmers who are trying to bring about fair trade. They are organising themselves into a group. And the fact they’re trying to bring the fairtrade standard. So I think it’s only those private standard,  social standards that can begin to have an impact. And we should encourage this through the organised groups of smallholders in Kenya. And that we would be able to improve the social conditions.

Stephanie Barrientos So very interesting hearing from both of you on on on sort of changing conditions, in terms of stock market diversification and especially the expansion of supermarkets within Africa, but you’ve got a convergence to some extent. What I’m hearing is a convergence of private and public standards in relation to food safety. But there are still serious challenges in relation to ensuring social standards and better conditions of work for both wage workers and for smallholders. So, so lots of changes going on, potential opportunities in terms of new avenues, but still a lot of space for campaigning by civil society and other organisations if the more marginalised workers and small are going to reap the benefits. So I’d like to just thank you very much for your contributions and for your involvement in this discussion. And for those who are interested further in the research, the Shifting South research, there is a Shifting South page on the Global Development Institute website at the University of Manchester, and there you will find that future briefs, publications, working papers, etc. Thank you all for your participation.



Top image: Photo by Photos By Beks on Unsplash


Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole