THE agricultural sector has gone through trying times over the years, with the government introducing a number of programmes to address the dire situation and ensure food security.
Ensuring Lesotho farmers produce enough food for the nation and export is a vision the ministry has held for many years, but which persistently proves difficult to fulfil. In this wide-ranging interview, the Lesotho Times (LT) speaks with the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Mr Mahala Molapo (MM) on why he believes the country's farming sector is now at a "turning point".
LT: This is your second appointment to the Ministry of Agriculture... the first was in 2012 when you were deputy minister and you were in the post for less than three years and early this year, you were appointed minister. How do you find the agricultural sector this time around?
MM: The main issue in the ministry is still food security, with the big question being how do we make sure agriculture attracts more people to fully utilise the land we have in order to produce enough for the country. I was in this ministry before in the first coalition government, but I have since realised that a lot of the programmes we had introduced changed their scope when the second coalition government took over. We are trying to see how best we can encourage farmers to go back to the fields this summer cropping season.
LT: What is your plan to make sure farmers meet the country's 300,000 mt cereal requirement, considering the fact that the programme you started was disrupted by the new government in 2015?
MM: We understand that the cost of production is very high. Inputs are expensive and the majority of our farmers cannot afford the costs associated with land-preparation, seed, fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides. Our plan is to provide input-support through subsidy to encourage all our farmers to be productive. We are aware that there are some land-owners who may not be interested in farming this year and we are encouraging them to partner with commercial or Block Farmers willing to utilise the land and then share the crop. The ministry is also resuming support for commercial farming in order to increase production with a view to satisfying the local market.
LT: You are saying the plan is to provide subsidised inputs to ensure more land is put under cropping production. But do you have any estimates of how this could translate into the output?
MM: The government is supporting agricultural production in line with the African Union's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which encourages governments to inject 10 percent of their annual budget to agriculture. The government allocated M120 million to the agricultural sector, which, however, is a drop in the ocean considering the huge demand. But through subsidy, we are saying, let's stretch these resources to meet the farmers half-way and ease the high production costs. This investment will go a long way to alleviate hunger at household level while the support we are giving to commercial farmers seeks to ensure there is surplus to sell locally. At the moment, we are only looking at meeting our local food needs.
LT: Do you think subsidy is the answer to the challenges facing the sector?
MM: The government's current intervention is short-term while we work on sustainable ways to help improve the competitiveness of the sector. We believe that for now, subsidy can help but we also know that time must come when our farmers should be able to finance their own operations. Another solution is to strengthen the Out-Grower Schemes that will see big-time farmers providing support to their small-scale counterparts within their local communities. But of course, issues of creating local markets for our farmers to make agriculture profitable is key on our agenda.
LT: What favourable conditions are you setting or creating to ensure there is pride and dignity in agriculture as an occupation and viable sector, which is also inclusive of women and young people?
MM: We are at a turning point and I believe with hard work, partnerships, strong systems and innovation, the vision of a food-secure Lesotho is within reach. Farming profitably is also a major issue because that way, farmers will not perennially depend on subsidies from the government, which we do not intend to provide forever.
We have a mega-plan aiming to strengthen the value-chain system, which means taking care of all agricultural economic activities, from input supply to the market. We have started discussing who else benefits from the agricultural sector; what do they do and what do they need and how much from the sector and where are they currently getting what they need. Obviously, we know that many agricultural products such as food, are coming from South Africa and so how is this affecting our own farming sector and our economy? As a result, we are looking at these issues and seriously working towards strengthening our systems. We also hope that by so doing, we will promote our own farmers, including women and young people, and ensure dignity in agriculture as a decent occupation.
LT: Could you please tell us more about this mega-plan you are referring to?
MM: Our plan will see us working closely with various stakeholders within government and externally, in the development of infrastructure that will ensure we decisively deal with food losses. After our farmers harvest their crop, it should be collected through better roads and we would like to ensure that there are warehouses to store and preserve the produce. We have looked at the issue of markets and identified that there are a number of institutions and government programmes that can buy this local produce. We are talking about the prisons, ministries of Health and Education and Training, supermarkets, the hospitality industry, agribusinesses and many others. My ministry is also working closely with various partners to look into issues around the quality of produce. I strongly believe with support, our farmers can produce quality; many are already producing first-grade maize, sorghum, wheat, fruits and vegetables.
LT: What bigger picture are you seeing at the end of this grand scheme?
MM: At the very heart of this plan is to grow the economy of the country with a very special focus on developing the rural economy. I don't believe that for people to develop, they have to come to Maseru or migrate to Leribe. I think the government should now focus on taking development to the least-developed towns using agriculture as its vehicle. Innovative and inclusive agriculture is what we are looking at because there are a number of approaches we can explore to increase production, such as focusing on high-impact agricultural production in Berea for example, and then paying more attention to value-addition.
We would like to create new opportunities that can increase wealth in all the districts and make people opt to stay where they are and be equally productive. I am not afraid to say, stay where they are and become rich through agricultural production, agribusinesses and working in this sector. More than anything, I would like to see us being able to facilitate knowledge-exchange visits to countries such as China, to expose our people to agro-technologies and enhance their business capacity.
LT: How is the ministry planning to implement all this?
MM: When you plan, you also have to have implementation in mind because on many occasions, we make unrealistic plans that are not implementable. The ministry does not work alone and the catch-word is 'inclusivity'. We have our partners, among them the Ministry of Small Businesses which will play a critical role on the marketing side. But importantly, a conducive environment has to be created and this includes reviewing our strategies and policies to reserve the local market for local farmers and agribusinesses. To action this plan, we also need to create a common vision among our partners, so that they understand where we are heading together. We will discuss many issues seeking to strengthen the value-chain system, including improving institutions that support this value-chain, to ensure we have well-coordinated inclusive activities involving the farmers, civil society, women, the private sector, young people and others who have shown interest to work towards a Lesotho that is free of hunger and poverty.
LT: With all this on paper, how are you going to ensure sustainability in production? Lesotho is not immune to climatic shocks?
MM: The ministry understands that our agricultural sector is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Through our extension services, we will continue working with partners to support climate-smart agriculture. Some of the practices we are promoting are the use of drought-resistant seed varieties and also growing drought-resistant crops in areas prone to dry spells such as the southern districts of Mafeteng and Mohale's Hoek. In the long-term, we would like to invest in large-scale water-harvesting projects through the creation of dams for irrigation and to continue expanding protected farming programmes. Animal health is also important and we continue working on improving health systems in view of the propensity to natural disasters. The wool and mohair promotion project, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is helping farmers to make their production resilient while addressing the issues of quality. The World Bank and IFAD are also promoting the sustainable production of cash crops in harsh climatic areas such as Mafeteng. This project, which started in 2012, is also working with farmers in the districts of Berea, Leribe and Butha-Buthe.
LT: Other than climate change, what other risks do you see threatening your mega-plan?
MM: We need a stable government to develop as a country, more so if we are to fully implement this long-term plan. Continuity is very important. We need to start, progress, start reaping the fruits and continue improving our programmes for more benefits.
The ministry also needs to strengthen its monitoring and evaluation, which is a challenge due to limited manpower. I believe this is an important area because we need to monitor what we are doing and be able to know early if we are making progress or there are challenges for early remedial action. We also need a local consultant who can evaluate our operations to inform improved designing of our programmes.