The Prime Minister’s Office is driving a campaign to eradicate poverty and promote a culture of self-reliance among Basotho.
The campaign is being conducted under the Special Office for Vulnerable Persons headed by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s spouse, Liabiloe ‘MaIsaiah Thabane, in conjunction with the Poverty Reduction Programme, whose Director is Topollo Lephatšoe.
Over the past two months, the offices have been making strides in easing the burden of poverty nationwide, by providing food parcels for impoverished families and the elderly, establishing small-scale poverty reduction programmes, providing wheelchairs and other medical equipment for people living with various disabilities.
Mr Lephatšoe’s office is responsible for the technical side, while the Special Office for Vulnerable Persons engages directly with beneficiaries.
The poverty-reduction ventures, the Lesotho Times was told, include providing disabled people with machinery to manufacture special shoes compatible to their disabilities, as well as helping families caring for their disabled relatives to jumpstart income-generating projects.
According to Mr Lephatšoe, the two offices have provided for the needs of more than 100 vulnerable Basotho, mainly in the districts of Leribe, Berea, Mafeteng and Maseru.
However, Mr Lephatšoe adds although the two offices are currently handing out food parcels to the needy, their goal is for every needy family to establish a small and sustainable income-generating project.
“We cannot continue handing out food parcels all the time because people eat today but are hungry again the next day. They need to be taught how to become sufficient and that can be realised through helping them establish sustainable money-making projects,” Mr Lephatšoe told the Lesotho Times in a wide-ranging interview.
Below are excerpts from the interview Mr Lephatšoe had with the Lesotho Times’ (LT) Bongiwe Zihlangu.
LT: When and why did you decide to start this initiative?
Lephatšoe: We started this project about two months ago, with the aim of eradicating poverty and promoting a culture of self-sufficiency through helping families start sustainable income-generating projects.
Our belief is Basotho must be self-reliant and are not supposed to be seeking donations when we have soil and water to produce food, while at the same time, we can also exploit the country’s other natural resources.
LT: How did the two offices come into being?
Lephatšoe: I was approached by the Prime Minister (PM) in 2013 after he had seen me applying my skills while still working at the Cabinet Office during former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s rule. Dr Thabane gave me a 36-month contract and my job is to formulate and implement a poverty reduction strategy for the country.
With 47 percent of Lesotho’s population, particularly children, malnutritioned, how do we hope to have a functional society? We would want to sensitise the public about the possibilities for people to know the potential we have as a country and what we’re capable of achieving.
The two offices work hand-in-glove in implementing the poverty-reduction strategy.
LT: How do the two offices relate?
Lephatšoe: I work with the PM’s spouse, Mrs Liabiloe Thabane. I provide the technical know-how as Director of the Poverty Reduction Programme, while she heads the Special Office for Vulnerable Persons.
LT: What are the specific functions of her office?
Lephatšoe: She’s driving the project of handing out food parcels to the disabled, the elderly and the poor. Half the time you find food in government stores such as the Food Management Unit (FMU) rotting away without being given to those in need.
But her office addresses people’s needs on the spot and ensures that they receive what they need. Her job is to go out there, meet with those marginalised Basotho and find ways of helping them there and then.
Apart from food, she also gives out clothing and wheelchairs and other necessities, to people who need them.
For instance, we bought a M7000 shoe-making machine for a certain man living with a disability. The machine is for the manufacture of special shoes for people living with disabilities.
Again, there is a boy whose hands were amputated. ‘M’e Liabiloe has since engaged a German company to make prosthetic hands for him. This means the company will make hands for him every two years as he grows up.
LT: How many disabled people have you provided with wheelchairs so far?
Lephatšoe: So many that we have even lost count. There are so many people who need wheelchairs, especially because they get broken and need to be replaced after some time.
LT: You say the PM’s wife deals directly with beneficiaries. How many people does she see a day?
Lephatšoe: She sees no less than 10 people a day and listens to each case on her own.
LT: But how does her office identify potential beneficiaries?
Lephatšoe: We cannot hide the fact that there are people who might approach the office with ulterior motives. But when this office was opened, our first visitor was a woman who came with her teenage daughter and infant granddaughter who was a result of rape. All of them were hungry and in need of urgent assistance.
The first thing the office did was report the matter to the police for a follow-up and investigation to ensure the perpetrator of the rape was held to account.
Then they were bought food and transported home in order to establish their living conditions.
We only see the most marginalised of people coming to this office, families who are genuinely in need of help.
‘M’e Liabiloe mostly leaves her office to visit people in their villages to sit down and talk with them, and get to understand their different situations. She’s hardly in her office, travelling at least three times a week.
LT: Is the handing out of food parcels sustainable? I mean, don’t you have cases of people who return to ask for more because they still cannot afford to buy food on their own?
Lephatšoe: This is why we have self-reliance projects. We cannot continue giving out maize-meal every day because there are so many people starving out there. Some of them have even gone as far as saying they would rather have us establish projects for them instead of giving them handouts. People are tired of handouts and in the long term, we cannot afford it either. That’s why these two offices work together.
LT: How do you know which projects to start for the different categories of people?
Lephatšoe: Let me put it this way. In the mountains where we have herd-boys, we buy them livestock of their own so that they can take care of the animals and breed them for business purposes.
Right now, we intend to buy sheep for some marginalised herd-boys in Mokhotlong, so they can breed them and sell the wool. For instance, a lamb goes for about M150 to M200. This means we can spend a thousand on a herd-boy by buying him five sheep or goats.
LT: Why start these animal-rearing projects for the herd-boys in Mokhotlong?
Lephatšoe: There’s really no special reason except the fact that people in the highlands mostly rely on livestock for their livelihoods.
Again, people will be relocated when the construction of Polihali Dam begins in Mokhotlong. Half the time people do not use their money wisely, so we would want to start now to encourage them to invest in viable projects.
LT: Can you elaborate more on some of these projects?
Lephatšoe: At the moment, we have a project where we produce lip-balm. What we intend to do is give each marginalised family or one caring for a disabled person, ingredients and containers to process and package the product. This will be done with the view of paying each family at least M1 for every packaged lip-balm. In the event that one processes and packages 500 of them, they will get M500 for their efforts. That way, each family will have made some money for its upkeep.
What we will then do is collect the packaged products and sell them, with the proceeds being ploughed back into the project.
LT: So will you provide each family with equipment or machinery to process the products?
Lephatšoe: Not necessarily. Every household has processing equipment. Our ingredients do not need complex processing, as you can use your pots and other simple implements to process the ingredients we would have provided you with.
LT: What role does the Prime Minister play in your office?
Lephatšoe: Dr Thabane is the mastermind behind the projects. We report to him and he is also always asking after progress made. He has our plan and is ever inquisitive about its implementation.
Even when we face challenges, we can approach him for intervention and he always obliges. Our work has been smooth-sailing so far because he is involved.
LT: Can you confidently say your offices have made strides since you both started?
Lephatšoe: Absolutely! If you can see our album of activities, you will be amazed. We travel the whole country and ‘M’e Liabiloe is forever there to ensure everything goes smoothly. We access even the most remote of areas and people are always asking where we have been all this time.
The reaction has been amazing. I mean, people are grateful and for us, we are driven by compassion.
LT: What do you hope to achieve in the long run—your two offices, that is?
Lephatšoe: God said one will sweat to make a living. People should stop complaining and start realising how important they are and their potential to achieve their dreams in life, and also what they can contribute.