Higher education and agri-business can uplift SA’s poorest households

Posted on November 01, 2023

The poorest of the poor live in KwaZulu-Natal’s Zululand and Sisonke districts and the OR Tambo district of the Eastern Cape.

New research showed that household incomes have increased in these areas since 2008, and yet between surveys done up to 2017, most people remained extremely poor. 

The data also revealed a growing gap between what people earn and what they need to survive.

“It was a bit shocking, honestly, to see what was actually happening within rural districts,” says Dr Manana Mamabolo. She made some of these findings as part of her PhD research at UP’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development.

For example, while the national poverty line increased from R447 to R758 per person per month between 2008 and 2017, individual monthly earnings in Zululand only went from R468 to a meagre R475.80 over the same period.

For context, South Africa’s poverty line currently sits at around R1 000 per person per month, according to Stats SA. The minimum amount one needs now just to buy enough food in a month is estimated at R663.

As a citizen and scientist, Dr Mamabolo knew that many South Africans lived below the poverty line. However, she says previous studies generalised nationally or concluded that rural communities are poorer than urban folks. 

To get a more granular picture at district level, she delved into household income data surveyed by the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) between 2008 and 2017.

“If we want to come up with interventions and target resources to assist or to try to alleviate poverty, we can’t just measure it at the national level and leave it at that,” she says. “We must go further into the different rural areas and understand the situation.”

Dr Mamabolo and her co-authors recommended a policy shift to focus on higher education and added support for agricultural businesses in many of the traditional rural districts she analysed during her PhD research.

“We found that most people in rural areas had primary or secondary education, and that’s about it. We know that education is generally important to improve society– not just up to matric level, but beyond.”

She says that many of the households surveyed were already engaged in subsistence farming. “Converting that production into a business might also assist in generating additional income to push them over the poverty line.”

Dr Mamabolo says we now need a more local picture of what poor South Africans own and how they spend their money on basic needs like food, so the government can better channel resources to districts most in need.

- Author ScienceLink

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