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Leribe farmers defy odds

by Lesotho Times
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LERIBE — They might have failed to pay back their government-guaranteed loans but some farmers still believe all is not lost for block farming.
This week the Lesotho Times visited a block farming area in Mpharane in Leribe district to see the progress they have made so far.
Started in 2005, the group has 407 farmers and it is mentored by Finance Minister Timothy Thahane.
Together the farmers owe about M3 423 777.23 from the 2006/07 farming season which they say went horribly wrong because of the drought.
They have however managed to secure additional funding from the bank for this season.
Last season was better, the farmers say. 
According to the organisation’s secretary, Mosiuoa Lekomola, the past year’s harvest was immensely successful in that they were able to sell 918 bags or 79 tons of wheat to the Lesotho Flour Mills.
“We could have sold more but due to the heavy rains we were unable to harvest all the wheat we had,” Lekomola says.
“We also were able to sell seven and a half tons of quality grade sugar beans to the World Food Programme in 2009.
This year, Lekomola says, the situation looks even better.
The group has 126 acres of sugar beans that are yet to be harvested. They are expecting at least 750 bags.
“This week we are also hoping to harvest from the fields at least 10 000 bags of potatoes. 
“Besides that, we also have a signed and sealed a contract with the Lesotho Brewing Company (LBC) to produce for them 50 hectares of sorghum”.
Lekomola says he is upbeat about this year’s prospects.
“As long as the weather conditions stay the same, we are optimistic about having a healthy harvest of summer crops this year,” Lekomola says.
But they will be the first to admit that it has not been an easy journey for the organisation.
Their first year went horribly wrong.
“We started very late and due to the drought at the time our harvest was poor. We made a loss and were unable to pay back our loans to the bank,” says Lekomola.
“But we did not lose hope. Instead we pushed to be given more money because we knew that the block farming projects had a lot of potential.
“Although we still owe the bank we have improved immensely and produced more crops and are doing our best to gradually settle our debt.”
He says they talked to the bank about their plight and they got additional funding for the next season.
“Because we have been dedicated to paying little by little what we owe the bank we made a deal with the bank to continue helping us,”  he says.
“The bank continues giving us loans where we need them because despite the challenges we face, we also show initiative.”
Lekomola says membership of the group spreads over eight constituencies and 97 villages in Leribe.
Not all members are paying their loans though.
“Although it is not everybody who pays back, people are trying their best. For most of those who cannot pay, there is usually a concrete reason behind.
“For instance, in the case of death we take control of the fields of the farmer in question and use them to produce crops for sale to repay the debt. The surplus food is used to feed the deceased’s family.”
Apart from the lack of payment by member farmers, the group also has other problems.
“Having to wait for farming equipment from independent owners creates a lot of complications. Some of them are not in good conditions and break down all the time,” says Ramakatsa Mathibeli, a member of the committee.
“We are also short of cultivators and those we have access to have depreciated badly. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security also always delays in supplying us with required inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and equipment.”
The organisation says things will get better once they start working directly with the bank.
“Once we start working directly with the bank things will definitely look up. We will be able to make orders on time and put seeds in the soil in time,” Mathibeli says.
“The management at the ministry needs to be changed from top to the bottom. Instead of doing their job of liaising with farmers countrywide, agricultural extension officers relax in their offices,” Lekomola says.
“The ministry’s employees should do what they are hired for, go out there to the farmers and understand their needs, give the ministry the correct feedback on what happens on the ground.
“They only go out when they need to compile reports for the ministry.
“And they always get the wrong information because they are not familiar with how we operate. That is why they produce false reports.”
The organisation has made great strides in alleviating poverty though, Lekomola says.
“Families have food to put on the table because of this programme. We work with school children in the fields so that when they go back to school after their breaks they have something,” he says.
“We also teach the youth about the importance of agriculture and caring for the soil. For them to understand that land is a gift that needs nurturing for it to produce quality crops.
“We need to leave them a great legacy so that they can continue when we are no more.
“The project has also seen fields being cultivated. Gone are the days of barren fields and abject poverty.”

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