‘Malibuseng Moeketsi was left in a state of shock when she was retrenched by a Maseru-based international humanitarian aid organisation at the age of 48 in December 2007.
Ms Moeketsi knew at her advanced age, finding another job was not going to be easy as she would be competing with candidates young enough to be her own children.
But determined not to let despair define her future, Ms Moeketsi decided to venture into business and established a piggery project at her Roma home immediately after her retrenchment.
However, Ms Moeketsi had underestimated the demands of her new life, and eventually, her struggling business collapsed, leaving her heartbroken but still hoping she would rise again.
“I was devastated, but somehow, I did not lose hope,” Ms Moeketsi told the Lesotho Times this week.
“Around that time, a delegation of local entrepreneurs went for a business expo in Botswana and took dried peaches (mangangajane) with them to this fair,” Ms Moeketsi said.
“When they returned, a certain lady who is now late, told me how those dried peaches were sold-out at the expo. She said although the peaches had soil particles in them, they were still a hit at the expo because Batswana don’t grow peaches.”
Ms Moeketsi says after this discussion, she decided to venture into the dried-peaches business.
“One day, I was on my way to Bloemfontein when I met these women selling peaches, and I remembered what that other lady had told me about the peaches selling so well at the Botswana expo. I asked them where they ordered the peaches and the women directed me to the source in Ficksburg,” Ms Moeketsi said.
Determined to get into the fruit business, Ms Moeketsi said she decided to go to Ficksburg, but made a detour into another farm in the area, which was also into fruit-farming.
“On that farm, I was given a few tips on how to make a success out of this business and that is how it all started,” Ms Moeketsi says.
Ms Moeketsi is now the proud owner of Roma Valley Deluke—a company she started in 2012 and produces and sells dried peaches. The business has four permanent employees.
“I have cultivated some peaches and always start with my own fruits but once they are finished, I start buying from farmers in nearby villages like Nazareth,” Ms Moeketsi said.
“When I started the business, I bought a drying machine for the peaches but I am no longer using it as it either made them too hard or too soft. What I do now is purely rely on the sun to dry the fruits.”
Ms Moeketsi has since turned her garage into a drying room for her business. The peaches, she added, take three to five days to dry.
Yet Ms Moeketsi is quick to mention that it has not been plain-sailing with Roma Valley Deluke.
“When this business took off, I opened a kiosk at Pioneer Mall and hired someone to operate the outlet. But before I knew it, I couldn’t even raise enough to pay the rent.
“But when I went there myself, I would make around M800 per day but this person I had employed was giving me as little as M200 per day. The situation became difficult and I would pay rent from my own pocket.”
A nutritionist by profession, Ms Moeketsi is however, worried that her product does not have dietary information on its package.
“This situation makes it difficult for me to compete with some of these well-established products. That is why I would want to learn more about how to have such critical information and be in a position to compete with any similar product on the market,” said Ms Moeketsi, who was speaking to the Lesotho Times on the sidelines of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s two-day workshop on Standards, Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Metrology (SQAM).
Funded by the European Union, the workshop was organised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and attended by experts from Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Congo DRC, Tanzania and the Seychelles.
According to Programme Officer Kuena Molapo, the purpose of the workshop was to raise awareness on the importance of quality in the agro food-processing industry.
Local farmers were going to benefit from this workshop by learning how best they could present their products to the market through quality management principles, she further said.
“We are trying to demonstrate what can be done for product credibility as there are big players in the market already. Our farmers need to compete against these players by producing a product people can choose because of its outstanding features,” Ms Molapo said.
“This is basically an experience-sharing workshop and at the end, the intention is that all the farmers can go back to their own national bodies and say we are at this stage with our products and we are seeking advice on how we can meet set standards”.
Asked if there would be a follow-up workshop to see how individual farmers are performing, Ms Molapo said: “At the moment, no. But we have had a series of these workshops and we hope funds-permitting, we can come back together again and see how far the implementation has gone at ordinary farmers’ level. Implementation is the most important aspect at this stage.”
Ms Molapo said there was an urgent need to move forward and demand assistance so that regional farmers could grow from domestic to commercial agriculture.
Officially opening the workshop on Monday, the Ministry of Trade and Industry acting Director of Standards and Quality Assurance, Molebatsi Rabolinyane said Africa was known for exporting huge quantities of raw material, which should not be the case. He was speaking on behalf of the ministry’s principal secretary.
“This is so mostly because our countries have not yet mastered strategies and techniques to comply with technical regulations and requirements set by the market,” Mr Rabolinyane said.
Some African farmers believe it is virtually impossible to comply with standards and are not aware they could be assisted by their national quality infrastructure to penetrate and attain their export market, he added.
Mr Rabolinyane also said the globalisation of markets as advocated by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had brought African farmers challenges they had to deal with if they are to compete.
“Consumers in developed economies have complicated demands that have to be catered for fully. Today they talk of Genetically Modified Organisms Certification; they demand to know whether child-labour was used, and whether the environment was not polluted during production, among others.
“This therefore means we have to know their demands before producing anything destined for export,” Mr Rabolinyane said.
“And for countries to trade among themselves, they have to agree on the level of quality, safety, characteristics of the commodity they wish to trade in, regulations and other laws as the case may be.”
According to Mr Rabolinyane, the process of agreeing on how a tradable commodity should look like is what standardisation is all about, while quality assurance refers to all planned and systematic tasks that one would carry out to provide confidence that a product or service meets all set requirements.
He said the following can be used to ensure compliance: testing and inspection, good manufacturing practices, good hygienic practices, hazard analysis and critical control points.
“Metrology talks to the science of measurement. In trade, we have to agree on the amounts being traded and moreover, on how to label our commodities,” Mr Rabolinyane said.
“Our conformity assessment infrastructure has to be recognised by peers in the region and internationally. Accreditation is a tool used to assess that an organisation is competent to perform its tasks.”
Accreditation, he added, provides for acceptance and recognition of conformity assessment procedures and results among trading partners to allow free movement of goods and services.
“I want to reiterate that it is important that our food-processing industry is supported by a robust quality infrastructure which is recognised internationally so that our tradable commodities can be sold worldwide without problems,” he said.
“This workshop comes at an opportune time when Lesotho has received training on strengthening the National Point of Contacts for Codex Alimentarius. This training certainly emphasises the importance of putting the necessary food safety frameworks and accompanying conformity assessment infrastructure to ensure that we meet the ‘farm to fork’ principle.”
Mr Rabolinyane said his ministry had also realised that a national standards body was one of the essential elements a country needed to create if Lesotho was to be in tandem with her trading partners.
“Based on this, we plan to establish a national standards body this financial year. We have substantial activities in the area of quality assurance, accreditation and metrology.
“I wish to pledge my support, in this workshop, on the initiatives that will be done by the Department of Standards and Quality Assurance to build Lesotho’s own quality infrastructure.”
He thanked SADC for realising the need to host the workshop in Lesotho “especially now that our farmers are keen on producing for the market. Hopefully, this will spur our agro food-producing companies to perfect the way they do business.”
However, although the workshop’s interactions were very enlightening, the participants agreed that meeting set standards or requirements was not going to happen overnight.
“While we appreciate the importance of meeting the required standards, I think it is also important for us to understand and appreciate that this will not happen overnight or within six months,” a participant from Seychelles said.
“Food is a highly regulated area because we speak about health and we will not achieve this overnight.”
Another participant said it was difficult for ordinary farmers to meet and understand national standards as they are written “in a foreign language”.
“This is one of the big challenges dairy farmers are facing in Malawi as they don’t understand the language being used when communicating these requirements to them. However, there are plans to translate the standards into local language without compromising standards,” the Malawian said.
The absence of incentives for farmers meeting standards was also contributing negatively to their performance, he added.
However, a local farmer who requested not to be named, told the Lesotho Times that the issue of standards was too ambitious if not a complete waste of time.
“How do you expect us to meet standards when we are not even close to being real commercial farmers? We need to arrive at a position where we can safely say Lesotho is able to feed itself before we can think of establishing a national standards body,” he said.
Asked why he was not voicing his concerns before the rest of the participants, he said: “We often get victimised for saying the obvious and given that we still need such stakeholders to grow as farmers, we just keep our views to ourselves.
“I honestly think we need to start by helping emerging farmers to flourish so that we don’t import everything. What kind of a country is this that imports everything, even water that it has in abundance?
“Not everyone can be a commercial farmer. Just visit South Africa and you will see that only certain individuals are well-established farmers who are supported by their government to ensure the country can feed itself. But in this country, everyone can do anything they feel like.
“The issue of standardisation is good but not now. Let us first come up with practical methods of feeding ourselves before we can talk about standards.”