With few domestic resources or job opportunities, Basotho men have been migrating to neighbouring South Africa to work in the country's gold and platinum mines for generations. In the 1990s, the money they sent back to their families accounted for as much as 67 percent of Lesotho's GDP, according to the World Bank.
But a shift towards less labour-intensive forms of mining, higher production costs, the global economic slowdown, and the strength of the South African Rand against the US dollar have resulted in more and more migrant mineworkers being sent home over the last 15 years.
From a peak of about 125,000 Basotho men working in South African mines in the late 1980s (almost 20 percent of the Lesotho's total work force), by 2010 the sector only employed about 35,000, according to mine recruitment agency TEBA Ltd.
The loss of remittances from mineworkers has had a major impact on the economy of this tiny, mountain kingdom, which is completely surrounded by South Africa. Remittances had dropped to 28 percent of GDP by 2008 and, according to Malineo Nkhasi of the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA), even the country's food production levels have been negatively affected.
"Food security in Lesotho has dropped tremendously because the ex-mineworkers were people who were able to hire tractors for ploughing their fields and since they've been retrenched they can't afford to do so," she told IRIN.
She added that many of the laid-off mineworkers had returned with health conditions such as tuberculosis, silicosis and HIV that limited their ability to farm.
Skills training, small loans
The MDA, which was established as the development wing of South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers, runs programmes in four of Lesotho's 10 districts aimed at helping ex-mineworkers and their families find new ways to make a living. Participants receive skills training and small loans to help them set up businesses.
"We give people skills which can help them to be employed or self-employed," said Nkhasi. "Some of the former mineworkers have opened cafes, mini-supermarkets, or gone into the taxi business."
The MDA also has a food security programme which provides households with seedlings from its nursery that can be used to start a vegetable garden or plant a field.
In Lesotho's southern Mohale's Hoek District, TEBA Development, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with TEBA Ltd is running a similar programme.
According to Mabokang Mxakaza, coordinator of the project, the average mineworker supports seven people. The loss of that income often forces other family members to migrate to South Africa or Lesotho's capital, Maseru, for low-paying employment on farms and in factories.
"It has a very bad impact," she told IRIN. "They often come home sick with HIV and end up leaving behind orphans. Human trafficking is also very common because people are so desperate for jobs that whatever comes their way, they take it."
Food security programme
Alexis Mokhehle, one of the beneficiaries of TEBA Development's food security programme, was laid off from a South African gold mine 13 years ago and has not held a job since, but he still considers himself the breadwinner for his family of 10. None of his children are employed and his wife died in 2001 after going to Maseru to look for a job in one of the factories.
With seeds and training from TEBA, he is now growing enough vegetables from a keyhole garden (small, raised-bed garden) behind his house in the village of Kopialena to feed his family and sell the surplus, generating a small income to cover some of their other needs.
TEBA Development's Mxakaza explained that keyhole gardens retain more moisture meaning that vegetables can be grown year-round. About 65 percent of the participants are earning a small revenue from their gardens which some invest in community income-generating projects.
Every month, Mokhehle contributes 15 maloti (US$2.12) towards a community bakery and 30 maloti ($4.24) towards a piggery from which he will eventually receive a pair of pigs that can be bred for an additional income.
In Mokhehle's village of about 200 households, TEBA Development is assisting only 47 of the most vulnerable through the food security project. "That doesn't mean we're addressing the need," said Mxakaza, explaining that funding for the programme, which comes from South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti, only allows them to help a maximum of 400 households a year.
With funding from the Kellogg Foundation, MDA's skills training, micro-credit and food security programmes have a wider reach, with about 4,150 beneficiaries, 630 of which are running small businesses.
At the age of 72, Mokhehle seems happy leaning over his lush vegetable garden, watering his tomato plants, but Mxakaza said families often take time to adjust to their new situation and the programme, now only in its third year, will take time to lift many of them out of poverty.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]