MEET YOUR MINISTER
MENTION Chalane Cletus Phori, and the first thing that comes to mind for many people is his infamous seizing of the parliamentary ceremonial mace and walking out of the house with it, forcing the adjournment of business in October 2014.
The All Basotho Convention (ABC) legislator for Qoaling #34 constituency had lost his temper when the National Assembly was debating a motion seeking to amend the constitution and remove the prime minister’s powers to unilaterally prorogue parliament.
A lot has happened for Mr Phori since, including fleeing to South Africa in February last year citing a plot to assassinate him.
Last month, the outspoken legislator was also sworn-in as Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing minister after the 3 June 2017 parliamentary elections brought back ABC leader Thomas Thabane to power in a coalition with three other parties.
With a compelling biography of having emerged from extreme poverty to becoming a thriving entrepreneur, Mr Phori (41) seems like a perfect fit for his ministerial portfolio.
In an interview with the Lesotho Times this week, Mr Phori said growing up in the dusty neighbourhood of Tsoapo-Le-Bolila in Maseru was far from easy since he had to contend with extreme poverty.
“Sometimes I had to walk the 15 kilometres to and from school barefoot if I couldn’t find someone to lend me a pair of shoes,” he said.
His father, Francis, died in the early 1980s – which made an already bad situation worse since he was the sole breadwinner in a family with seven children. It forced Mr Phori, who was in his early teens at the time, to supplement his mother’s meagre income by selling fruits in the streets of Maseru in between attending classes at school.
His mother’s business of selling homemade traditional beer was not enough to cater for the children’s needs.
However, a steely resolve to succeed carried Mr Phori through high school and into his first job as a journalist for a newspaper called Thebe.
Soon afterwards, he launched an organisation that taught herd boys reading and writing basics in far flung areas of the country.
Mr Phori collaborated with two partners to establish the Advanced Technology High School which has since been renamed Sekonyela High School and is now run by the local community in Mokhotlong.
Former Small Business Development minister, Selibe Mochoboroane, was once the school’s principal, while Bobatsi legislator Mooki Sello is one of its products.
In 2003, Mr Phori ventured into the construction sector by founding Rastil Building Construction whose main focus was building low-income homes. He soon earned the moniker “Tsoapo” which became the nameplate for many of his businesses.
“After venturing in the construction industry, I became interested in brick manufacturing and started a company called Tsoapo’s Brick Works,” he said.
A scarcity of cement in Lesotho ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa forced Mr Phori to branch out into the retail sector, where he established Tsoapo’s Business centre in his home village, which consisted of a supermarket, bar and a hair salon.
The business faced stiff competition from Asian-owned enterprises, and Mr Phori once again diversified by establishing butcheries branded Mr Wors Tsoapo’s Meats. However, most of them folded after he fled to South Africa.
“Before I went into exile, we had eight butcheries around the country. I am now in the process of resuscitating them along with the other ventures that were negatively affected by my absence,” he said.
“I am a livestock farmer with a flock of merino sheep for wool production and for meat. I also own some cattle. I am also into crop farming with a particular interest in producing potato seedlings and the project is being undertaken in Mantsonyane.”
Mr Phori is also a member of the Tlala Basotho Cooperative which is currently operating the Mejametalana cooperative site. The project is run in collaboration with Chinese investors involved in advanced tunnel farming.
He is also in the process of establishing an animal feed manufacturing company envisaged to supply farmers around the country. The project is a partnership with Mr Phori’s ABC colleagues, Mohapi Majoro and Thabiso Monyatsi, and bankrolled by the M500 000 interest-free loans the legislators received from the government meant to benefit the community.
As if those ventures were not enough, Mr Phori is also a shareholder at fast food restaurant chain Barcelos Lesotho. He is also in the transport business, with his fleet of trucks under the Tsoapo’s Transport brand delivering bricks and rough sand among others things.
Mr Phori’s underprivileged background did not diminish his love for education, and he enrolled for a diploma in Business Management at the National University of Lesotho’s Institute of Extra Mural Studies.
He is currently pursuing another business course with the Management College of Southern Africa.
Going into politics
Mr Phori said his political journey began when he engaged Dr Thabane, who was still Police minister at the time, to assist with the payment of a government tender.
“Some government officials had refused to pay me for the tender, after arguing that I had been awarded the tender because of political connections,” he said.
“I was desperate to resolve the matter because I needed to pay back the supplier of the bricks I used in the project. I engaged Ntate Thabane on the issue since he was responsible for the Police ministry.
“I was impressed with the manner in which he handled the matter because I ended up getting paid. What made me particularly happy about Ntate Tom’s intervention was the fact that I had unsuccessfully implored higher-placed government officials at the time who did not assist me.”
Mr Phori said he also engaged Dr Thabane after his car was stolen.
“After my new Audi A4 was stolen, I once again knocked on Ntate Thabane’s door for assistance. He came to my rescue and arranged for me to get the documents I had lost that were in the car.
“So, my interest in him grew and we became close. Coincidentally it was at a time when he was about to form the ABC and I was there to offer my support. But I don’t want to claim that I am one of the founders of the ABC.”
He was also impressed by the ideals on which ABC was founded, such as ensuring the rights of minority groups in society, fighting hunger and corruption among others.
Turning to his appointment as a minister, Mr Phori said it came as a surprise, although he was ready to deliver on the mandate given to him by the coalition government.
“As someone who has a first-hand appreciation of micro and small-sized enterprises, I was fortunate enough by the grace of God to see my businesses developing to a level where I was able to live in a big house and drive expensive cars.
“That means I have a tasted both extremes of life; namely hardship and plenty. So, I can easily relate with both sides when it comes to my work as a Small Business Development minister.”
Mr Phori said he was urged by members of the Qoaling constituency to contest as a legislator.
“I had actually refused the people of Qoaling constituency’s plea for me to be a member of parliament. They ended up bringing their plea to Ntate Tom. And out of respect for Ntate Thabane, I ended up agreeing to stand for elections.
“I never imagined myself holding the position of a minister because it is a position normally associated with people who are very educated. But Ntate Thabane does not seem to conform to that notion as indicated by his confidence in me.
“I am very humbled by his decision to put his trust on me. And it says to me I should do better than I was doing in the past without discriminating against anyone.”
Mr Phori added that he was aware of his shortcomings and would confer with experts in the ministry.
“I am also going to work hard to ensure that Lesotho establishes a development bank to help Basotho get into business. We need to eliminate the challenge of lack of access to finance, which I know is a big problem for our people.”