EASTERN Cape agriculture MEC Mbulelo Sogoni presented a R1,5billion budget to the legislature, saying food security and safety was paramount.

Sogoni said his department would actively promote the growth of non-farming elements of the rural economy over the next five years.

The department's new slogan - Ilima Labantu - is meant to narrow the gap between urban and rural families. Sogoni also suggested that the province establish an agency to fund all rural development.

"Substantial progress has been made in the amalgamation of the Eastern Cape Rural Finance Corporation, Eastern Cape Appropriate Technology Unit and Eastern Cape chapter of the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (AsgiSA-EC) into a single rural development agency in the Eastern Cape," he said.

"Economic data released recently by Statistics South Africa show that growth in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry, nationally, continues to decline.

"In Eastern Cape real output in the primary sector - of which agriculture, forestry and fishing constitute about 95percent - shrank by 4,5percent in the second quarter of 2009, following 2,6percent and 5,5percent contractions in the first quarter of 2009 and fourth quarter of 2008, respectively.

"Invariably this translates into a decline in exports and the number of jobs in the sector, and this is what programmes of the department are expected to respond to."

Sogoni listed the successes of his department as:

l905 Expanded Public Works Programme work opportunities were created, exceeding the 708 initially targeted;

l119km of fence was put on the ground; and

l25 agricultural cooperatives were established, leading to 468 such coops in the province.

The Eastern Cape Honey Producers Association, a Section 21 company made up of 54 cooperatives, received the Provincial Balasela Award and an innovations award from the Centre for Public Service and Innovation nationally.

Sogoni said the department still faced challenges regarding inadequate relief for the many farmers who were affected by drought and a lack of funding for its many projects.

He said the department's rural development strategy (RDS) was the most appropriate and coherent response to the challenges of the rural economy, which is dominated by the agricultural sector.

"The RDS proposed agrarian reform, infrastructure development and skills development.

"The strategy also articulates the imperative of diversifying away from the agricultural sector in favour of non-farm rural economic development.

"The main focus is the creation of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities through agro-industry, tourism and forestry development. The department will strive for economic inclusion through programmes aimed at establishing new and developing existing small, medium and micro enterprises and cooperatives, as well as creating broad-based black economic empowerment opportunities in the rural economy.

"This will also include critical issues such as access to finance and markets by these small enterprises."

Sogoni said 9000 jobs would be created over the next five years through the expanded public works programme to fence about 5000km at a cost of R80,3million.

"The department, in partnership with AsgiSA-EC and some municipalities, has successfully mobilised many rural communities to go back to work on the land.

"These communities are producing crops more than they can handle and thus require storage and processing facilities. Over the next five years, the department will respond to this by providing 11 in Matatiele, Mhlontlo and Mnquma.