‘Our people must not lose hope’
LESOTHO is grappling with its worst drought in four decades, prompting Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to declare a state-of-emergency for development partners to lend a helping hand.
the Disaster Management authority estimates that more than 650 000 people would need food support this year because of a sharp decline in agricultural yields.
In this wide-ranging interview, agriculture and Food Security Deputy Minister, ‘Mamosa Molapo ( pictured), tells Lesotho Times ( LT) reporter, Rethabile Pitso, how the El Niño-induced drought has impacted on the nation. El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon characterised by inadequate rain in some parts of the world and floods in others. El Niño used to occur in varying degrees of severity after every five years, but has become more frequent since the 1990s.
LT: Let’s start with the farming outlook for 2016 in light of the prevailing drought…how much has the inadequate rainfall affected the country’s agricultural sector?
Molapo: We have a bit of a challenge in 2016 due to El Niño, which prevented us from carrying out full summer farming activities. and again, we are not sure if the drought is going to end in March as projected but if it doesn’t, the problem will persist. With the little rain we have experienced recently, I think we might be able to produce in winter. We are foreseeing successful winter cropping provided El Niño does not persist. But we are also aware that not all the grains can be produced in winter but only crops such as peas and wheat and also animal feed. So if we can concentrate on those, we would be able to get something at the end of the winter cropping season.
During the second half of the year, we are going to be welcoming summer cropping around august, and this would be mainly in the highlands. then in October, we would be starting in the lowlands. So we are hoping this year, we won’t be facing these drought challenges we currently have so that the summer cropping can go on smoothly and the farmers would be able to produce the full range of crops, namely maize, sorghum, beans and wheat. With agriculture, the cycle never really changes. What we can change are the strategies and approaches but with the confusion we now have regarding El Niño, we don’t know what to expect.
LT: Is government looking at helping farmers mitigate the challenges of low production due to the adverse weather conditions?
Molapo: Government has always provided subsidies to our farmers; there has always been subsidy on cultivation, fertiliser and seed.
LT: The declining crop production has sparked fears that food prices are going to increase and the people are going to suffer even more. The increase has already started, and experts have warned that the situation can only get worse. Is government going to intervene and ensure basic commodities such as maizemeal and bread remain affordable for ordinary citizens?
Molapo: It is true that we are heading towards food-price increases. In fact, from last month, we have noted a drastic increase in food prices. the information I have gathered, for example, shows that the price of lucerne has increased from M300 to M800 a bale. this means the price has increased by almost 300 percent. a tonne of yellow maize used to be bought for M1 226 but now it’s over M3000, which is again more than 200 percent increase. What this means is for the mill (lesotho Flour Mills) to import maize, since we do not rely on maize produced inside the country, they have to increase the price of their products.
Unfortunately for them, they have only increased prices by 35 percent, which does not compare with what they have to pay to bring maize into lesotho. this means eventually, the mill could close down if they do not match the market price increase. We are aware of this and trying to bring some interventions.
LT: How soon can you intervene because already, the situation is leaving many families without adequate nutrition? Molapo: We recently adopted a new strategy although we are towards the end of the financial year. We have now put in place a Disaster Management Committee (DMC) that is looking at response plans for all cases which have resulted from El Niño. However, we cannot respond to the problems immediately because we need to go through processes such as meetings with development partners, who are here to assist government with the much-needed funds.
LT: The Prime Minister recently announced that M10 million would go towards the agricultural sector. How is this money going to be utilised?
Molapo: First of all, the M10 million is not going to be sufficient as it is expected to benefit the whole agricultural sector, which includes the Ministry of Forestry. It has to be divided between the two ministries. Forestry already has to use the money to construct dams while agriculture, on the other hand, makes provision for food supply. and these are only short-term interventions which are compelling us to concentrate on food, water and diseases.
LT: But how dire is the situation on the ground due to this drought?
Molapo: agriculture is facing a lot of challenges because we are dealing with many issues, involving both humans and animals. Right now, we have livestock dying because pastures are no more. the animals are feeding on soil in their attempt to grab the little grass they can find, and as a result, they get sick. Some are getting anthrax and this is already impacting on the lives of people who may eat meat from such infected livestock. anthrax symptoms do not show physically as a cow may die all of a sudden. But the symptoms can later show in the people, who eat meat from such an animal.
We have had to focus on eliminating the anthrax first. We started an anthrax immunisation programme in October last year and later shifted focus to scabies. and just when we thought we were done, there was another outbreak of anthrax. We don’t know whether we will ever be able to completely eradicate anthrax because for as long as there is inadequate pasture, the disease will persist. and for us to prevent people from contracting the disease, we have to ensure the livestock is not infected.
LT: How far has Lesotho gone as far as commercializing its agriculture is concerned?
Molapo: Even though we have set a goal to move towards commercialisation, the current production situation is not enabling. We have so many arable fields that are lying fallow. the reason is people are not able to produce and cultivate. If we start talking commercial, we have to get our people to start small. and if we can make sure that people are at least producing even on a small scale, then we would have the potential for people to produce commercially. We are still so far away from commercial farming.
again, looking into an ongoing project that seeks to combat malnutrition, the findings are that our people choose to rely on supplements than cultivating simple plots at their own homes. this made me realise that people have to change their attitude towards agriculture. In my opinion, it is good to subsidise but what I see is a lot of dependency growing in our people. But how are they going to live when they no longer receive these subsidies?
LT: The Land Administration Authority (LAA) has raised concern about people who own arable fields but are reluctant to register them for commercial purposes. How has the ministry intervened in such circumstances?
Molapo: Our land tenure system has to change. We are not even able to attract investors because our people become hostile when it comes to such issues. Many farm-owners are still resistant to enter into agreements with potential investors. In some cases they agree, but along the way, they change their minds yet production would be in progress. and such behaviour is not good for investment.
then we have the Block Farming project which is now called the Intensive Cropping System and is ongoing in different parts of the country. the agreement is that the landowners do not incur any costs of production, which are borne by government. Come harvest time, the farm-owner gets 40 percent of the produce whilst government takes 60 percent. But when it’s almost harvest time, there are people who will go and set that block on fire.
We have had about three cases of big blocks of fields being burnt this way. It is unfortunate that we have not been able to establish how the fire would have started, but this goes to show the kind of hostility we encounter. We don’t know whether it is people sabotaging others because of jealousy; we do not know whether it’s political sabotage or what. What is even more challenging is that when government tries to address the issue, riots follow.
Now we are opting to tender the projects for communities themselves to be in charge of all operations. We hope by doing so, people would be more responsible and be protective of the projects as there would be this sense of ownership.
LT: But how does the government help those very passionate about farming, apart from giving them subsidies? There are people out there who would want to go into farming fulltime and large-scale but don’t have the expertise and funding to do so. Does government have special plans for such people?
Molapo: the Smallholder agricultural Development Project (SADP) has been put in place to assist farmers go commercial. that project provides for their training so that they can work together and produce in large quantities. It is a training-plus assistance and support programme. last year, we provided 265 farmers with grants and have continued to monitor their progress. We teach them to manage the funds, their work and encourage them to keep records. We are equipping them for the future when they would have to deal with the banks at the end of the project.
LT: In conclusion, what message would you want to send to the nation?
Molapo: Our people must not lose hope; it is not too late to start farming. the drought experience has taught us some lessons such as farming on a small scale so that we always have something to fall back on in case of disasters. It may not be enough but it is always better to have a little something. We have learnt that while awaiting intervention, we should have some resources in place because interventions do not come immediately. I also hope that our people would consider producing animal fodder on a much larger scale. Fodder is as critical as any other crop because without it, our livestock would die.