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Small-scale farming versus Kibbutz: how best to take back the desert?

30 Mar 2016

Almost ninety percent of South Africa is classified as arid or semi-arid, making farming a difficult prospect in many areas. However, through the advent of drip irrigation, which uses less water than traditional systems, the opportunity to utilise the vast dry areas of the interior to create greater and more secure food production is ready and waiting.

Granted there are already small-scale farmers ranging from subsistence farming through to co-operative networks of larger farms working to wrest the best from a tough environment. But providing reasonable quality against the odds can be daunting for small family farms which may be less focused on commercial value than survival.

Equally so for those specialist farms aiming for high quality foodstuff for consumers prepared to pay twice as much for fresh local organic produce -  from guaranteed eco-sustainable farming. With continued upward demand for food from a burgeoning population – and production beset by drought and other complications – some out-the-box thinking should be on the cards.   

Advantages and disadvantages of small-scale   

The description ‘small-scale’ does not necessarily refer to the size of the land. It can mean the type of product the farmer is producing or the market in which he operates. Sometimes there are crop and market combinations that simply suit smaller operations better than large ones.


  • less startup capital
  • closer supervision streamlining economy of labour and materials
  • personal knowledge of customers and networks of local community markets
  • selling directly to consumers without intervention of the wholesaler, distributer and supermarket 
  • fresh produce which contributes to high food quality and health benefits, and reduces the need for preservatives
  • more sustainable methods in maintenance of soil productivity and control of pests 
  • reduced transport emissions
  • a key safety-net in Africa for reducing poverty. 


  • labour and machinery costs   
  • lack of training for labour 
  • inability to raise capital 
  • unable to bear losses for any length of time 
  • forced to pay more for raw materials because of scale
  • unable to keep up with developments in science and technology 
  • unable to withstand large competition
  • unable to meet growth demands and standards, or today’s pressure for traceable sources    
  • difficulty in coping with investment, marketing chains and regulations.

The Kibbutz system

The Kibbutz system  

Israel’s famous co-operative farming system is rather like a combination of small and large-scale, but with community development drawn into the design. Rather than the piecemeal operation of independent small-scale farms or the impersonal mechanisation of large scale co-operatives, the kibbutz combines the value of people, land and food production. Agricultural development takes place in a sharing community geared for equality, security and self-sufficiency, managed with financial controls that benefit the whole. Its aim is to generate an economically and socially independent society founded on communal ownership of property.

The kibbutz looks after all the needs of all its members and their families. The system is geared to provide equally for all, sharing profits from the sale of food produced on the land. Families have accommodation and schooling is provided for children. Over the years, turning the desert into productive farmland with the ingenious use of drip irrigation, the Kibbutz system has been able to contribute almost 50% of Israel's agricultural produce.

Could the Kibbutz system be applied in South Africa?

Kibbutz success in South Africa would have to motivate the novel idea of communities teaming up to develop the agricultural potential of the land. Government would have to make land available and educate people to the idea of living and farming together in co-operation and common purpose, sharing expertise and technology. But for it to work at all, we would need real commitment from people with strong work ethic who are energized by the doctrine of equality, social justice and common ideals.


  • vast tracts of land could be developed using modern farming methods and the various drip irrigation innovations available
  • volume and speed of food production would be greatly enhanced
  • the arrangement would provide support and security for families that on their own would struggle to develop individual farming practices
  • the kibbutz would provide accommodation, education, work opportunities and assistance for all
  • greater food security would see better quality produce and more sustainable farming methods  
  • we have many people with expertise, time and entrepreneurial skills who would be ready to drive training and the managerial skills required, helping residents to develop personal growth  
  • the kibbutz is perfect for youth to learn practical skills like roofing, plumbing, electrical installation, welding, fencing, etc, making them more employable beyond the kibbutz 
  • skills development can be across the board in agricultural operations, food production, marketing of produce, accounting, budget management, administration, etc 
  • as shareholders in the enterprise, people will be working for themselves, developing business and entrepreneurial skills along with farming expertise
  • in recent years, Israeli kibbutzim have developed beyond agriculture, investing in industrial plants and high-tech enterprises – further broadening the opportunities that shared farming and the power of team spirit and vision can bring.

Netafim's Solutions

Netafim’s solutions

At Netafim we are continually developing and perfecting our technology, knowledge and innovative solutions in drip irrigation for all size farming. The purpose of an efficient irrigation system is to ensure that 90% of the water used benefits the plants, supporting healthy and effective root development. No matter what crop you’re nurturing – or on what size land you are working – our systems allow the development of plants even in hostile desert-like conditions. The drip irrigation system is the foundation of the success of the kibbutz system in Israel. That is why, in South Africa, together with other out-the-box thinkers, we know for sure that we have the experience, expertise and technology to drive food production to new heights in the country.

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