*First appeared in Business Day on 11 May 2017.

The overemphasis on the Eastern Cape’s economic challenges often overshadows the debate about its potential. It is true that the province’s unemployment is above the national rate of 26.5%, with youth unemployment also higher than the national figure of 35.6%.

Yet the Eastern Cape plays an important role in SA’s economy, contributing about 8% to national GDP. This makes it the fourth-largest contributor to GDP after Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. While typically considered a rural province, the provincial economy is mainly dominated by secondary and tertiary sectors such as manufacturing and automotive industries as well as trade and finance.

The untold story of the Eastern Cape is that it produces a third of SA’s fresh milk and wool. The province is also a key producer of citrus, with emerging farmers joining the industry. New commercial grain and oilseed farmers are also rising in areas around Matatiele, Ugie and Maclear. The province’s 2016-17 total commercial maize production is estimated at 83,400 tonnes, a 10% recovery from the previous season. Although this volume looks small compared to the expected national output of 14.5-million tonnes of maize, for farmers such as Joe Myengo in Maclear, Victor Mongoato in Matatiele and many others in the province, it is a notable achievement.

Mongoato said he was very happy about this season’s maize harvest, although the town does not have sufficient storage facilities.

The fact that Mongoato cannot store his maize for long means he has to sell at the current lower prices and miss out on expected higher prices later in 2017. This challenge does not exist in well-developed agricultural provinces such as the Free State and North West, but it is a reality that hobbles many Eastern Cape farmers.

Poor roads and agricultural infrastructure remain key challenges, which often hamstring farmers’ participation in the formal market system. Private businesses are also reluctant to invest in infrastructure in many Eastern Cape regions, partly because of low and erratic production volumes. Farmers also struggle to boost production volumes due to low levels of investment on communal lands.

Despite all these challenges, the province holds enormous potential for agricultural development, which could bring new entrants to the agricultural sector and create jobs. A study by McKinsey Global Institute showed the main opportunity for development in the Eastern Cape existed on unused arable land between East London and Queenstown. For this to materialise, the province requires committed investment that will help bring the new agricultural land to its full arable potential. Capital is needed for clearing, soil preparation, irrigation facilities and farm infrastructure.

This tends to be a stumbling block to unlocking the province’s economic possibilities. The World Bank, in its 2016 Africa’s Pulse report, observed that insecure property rights over land remained a key constraint to Africa’s agricultural productivity. The Eastern Cape is no different from many African countries as farmers in communal areas have no access to capital.

The way to unlock the value of Eastern Cape land would be by securing land ownership to give land owners access to safe credit and attract new capital investment into the sector. Organised agriculture could also play a crucial role in skills development by increasing the provision of training services to emerging smallholder farmers. The government could support emerging smallholder organisations through financing and growing state capacity to strengthen collective marketing schemes and farmer development programmes.

One way of doing this would be through the ongoing Agriparks initiative, which will hopefully present market opportunities for smallholder farmers. The agricultural sector presents a number of opportunities for the Eastern Cape, but this potential will not be fully realised under current communal land tenure systems. There is a need to take bold steps to unlock investment, create entrepreneurs and jobs in the province.

Communal land policy reform needs to be expedited, otherwise communal farmers such as Mongoato, Myengo and many others will struggle to realise their full potential in the agricultural sector and end up bowing out. The Eastern Cape could miss out on the potential jobs that will emanate from developing its farmers to participate in formal markets and all the economic benefits that stand to accrue to the province.