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That shrinking, sinking feeling

by Lesotho Times
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MASERU –– ‘Maseteta Mabeta stands next to a heap of maize, all that she harvested this year.

Mabeta is from Motloheloa, a farming village in Maseru district about 20 kilometres south of the capital.

Maseru is Lesotho’s second biggest maize-producing district, after Thaba-Tseka.

But for Mabeta, this year’s maize harvest is the worst in living memory.

Mabeta told the Lesotho Times last week that this year’s harvest was disappointing and spelled doom for her family.

Mabeta, who is in her early fifties, looks much older than her actual age thanks to years of back-breaking work on the fields.

She looks dejected, her face covered in maize dust.

Mabeta is among thousands of communal farmers who rely on their small maize harvests for survival.

Farming has been a nightmare for her and other villagers in rural Maseru.

Getting the seeds to plant in the first place is an equally daunting task .

Sometimes the government donates seed. The problem, Mabeta said, is that the donated seed is usually disbursed late.

Time is of essence to farmers. Planting late can ruin an entire season.

Mabeta said the ever-increasing cost of inputs, seeds and fertilisers, has been hitting her really hard.

The story is true for most Basotho communal farmers.

 “I need M200 for seeds for just a hectare. Fertiliser costs M600. Then there is the cost of pesticides and other costs related to weeding,” Mabote said.

She said they now rely on help from the government every farming season.

“The government is our only hope. We have been overwhelmed by the heavy prices for seeds, fertilisers and everything that we need to plough and plant the fields,” Mabeta said.

The late disbursement of seeds has adversely affected productivity, Mabeta said.

Mabeta’s meagre harvest best illustrates the state of communal farming in Lesotho.

Villagers in Motleheloa have seen their maize harvests decline over the years.

Lesotho has experienced poor harvests since 2001 mainly due to drought.

The southern African country has relied on food hand-outs from international relief agencies.

For villagers in Motleheloa, this year looks no different from the past years.

Mabeta’s maize cobs are under-developed. They are small and moldy.

She said this year’s harvest was the worst she could remember in years.

Mabeta said her maize harvest this year could only fill a small cart.

She said the harvest will not last until the beginning of the next harvest next May.

Mabeta said she has no clue how she is going to feed her family when the maize runs out.

“This year is the worst. The maize is so little that I do not know how I am going to feed my family.

“The maize-meal is going to run out in just a few months. I am going to have a hard time feeding my family.

“When it is finished I will have to buy some maize-meal from the shop. But it is so expensive,” Mabeta said.

‘Mapitso Selo said her field had gone fallow as she could not afford the cost of planting and tending the crops.

Selo said she failed to get assistance from the government’s block farming programme.

She said she used to produce maize for consumption but she has now been forced to help other farmers cultivate their fields.

At harvest time she gets some few bags of maize as a reward.

“We only got a few bags of maize this year. Production was so bad. I doubt if we are going to have enough food until the next harvest,” Selo said.

Her biggest fear is to go to bed on an empty stomach.

“The maize is too little and is of a poor quality. My share will definitely be very small this year. I am afraid that there are times when I will go hungry because I do not have money to buy maize-meal from the shop,” she said.

While some farmers continue to till the land others have given up.

Makalima Lebelo said he stopped planting maize five years ago. He said he lost more money than what he invested in farming.

“I would use more money every year hoping to have a good harvest. However I lost a lot of money and gained little from my efforts. I decided to quit producing maize,” Lebelo said.

Lebelo said he is worried by the drastic decline in maize production over the years.

“It is so scary how production has declined. We used to harvest carts full of maize.

“We would eat, sell the left-over and have enough to feed our families until the next harvest.

“Now we hardly get a cart-load of maize. We are going to die of starvation,” Lebelo said.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that between 400 000 and 450 000 people, about a quarter of Lesotho’s 1.8 million people, will require food aid before the next harvest in 2010.

“Reduced opportunities for casual labour (such as weeding etc) had exacerbated the food security situation for many vulnerable households, leaving them dependent on assistance,” the WFP vulnerability assessment report released earlier this year said.

According to the WFP, Lesotho’s 2009 harvest saw a 10 percent drop in maize production compared to 2008.

This was due to more land being left fallow because of the high cost of inputs such as seeds and fertiliser.

The WFP said the annual decline in cereal production was also as a result of the impact of the HIV and Aids pandemic.

“While erratic weather has affected Lesotho’s staple maize harvests in recent times, annual cereal production has been shrinking for years because of a combination of long-term soil erosion, lack of sufficient access to agricultural inputs and the impact of HIV and Aids on farming families,” said the WFP report.

The WFP said Lesotho expected to produce around 86 000 metric tonnes of cereals against the country’s needs of 125 000 metric tonnes.

Food production in Lesotho has been on the decline since the 1980s.

For example, in 1980, cereal production met about 80 percent of national requirements.

By the 1990s cereal production met 50 percent of the national requirements.

But by 2004, cereal production was estimated to contribute only 30 percent of national cereal requirements.

The downward spiral is still continuing, according to aid agencies.

The declining maize harvests are worsening the country’s already high levels of chronic food vulnerability.

Poor families are now forced to purchase even more food from the shops at a time when food prices are on the increase.

Some farmers have switched to sorghum production which is more resistant to drought.

The chief information officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Tankiso Mofilikoane, said Lesotho had so far this year harvested only 62 528 metric tonnes of maize.

Mofilikoane said the maize falls way below the 125 000 mt that are required to see the country to the next harvest.

“In this year’s harvest we are just around half of the tons of maize which are needed,” Mofilikoane said.

However he said the figures might change as harvesting was still underway.

“The 2008/2009 report on maize production is not yet out. The figures might change as the harvest (season) is not yet over,” he said.

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