‘Yet another period of food insecurity looms’

Tsitsi Matope

The Lesotho Bureau of Statistics (LBS) has projected poor harvests this year for the country’s three major cereals, namely maize, sorghum and wheat.
The Lesotho Times spoke to the LBS Director, Liengoane Lefosa, this week, about the forecast and its implications for the country’s food security.

LT: Why are crop-production forecasts important that the Lesotho Bureau of Statistics has been conducting them since 1974?

Lefosa: This is a very important exercise because it helps government and other stakeholders, to come up with well-informed plans and decisions to ensure food-security for the nation.
As an arm of the state, we provide the crop-production data to complement government efforts in measuring the expected food-production at both household and national level.
As a country, we have not been self-sufficient, food-wise, for many years and as a result, we need to forecast harvests to determine the quantities of cereals required, mainly for the following year.
This information is also essential to the public and private sectors as well as other stakeholders dealing with agriculture-related issues to help them ensure they have the necessary storage adjustments and make informed credit, based on the crop prospects or forecasts.
During the survey, we look at many factors such as the weather pattern, arable land, soil fertility, inputs used and the general household food security status.
This information is used by various stakeholders in their various programmes or operations.

LT: How do you conduct the forecast?

Lefosa: We used a method called the Stratified Multi-Stage Sampling Scheme to conduct the survey. Large enumeration areas constituted primary sampling units while farming households constituted secondary sampling units to enable the estimation of land use, crop areas and projected yield.
Fields under maize, sorghum and wheat formed the third sampling unit. About 120 primary sampling units in the rural areas that covered 2 000 farming households were selected.
A maximum of five fields, each for the three main crops, constituted the sample for the forecasting exercise that covered the summer season only.

LT: So how did you determine the primary sampling units?

Lefosa: They were selected with probability proportional to the estimated size obtained from the 2006 Population and Housing Census. In each primary sampling unit, an average of 20 agricultural households was selected through systematic sampling from a list of all agricultural households.

LT: What were the findings of the survey?

Lefosa: Well, in a nutshell, we are projecting yet another period of national food insecurity despite an increase in the overall area planted in the 2013/2014 summer season.
For all the three major cereals, we are expecting a domestic deficit or shortfall of 186.414 metric tonnes (mt), with maize contributing 72.7 percent, sorghum 18.5 percent and wheat 8.8 percent.
Overall planned imports are 351 912 mt to cover the total shortfall.

LT: For all the crops, how much area was planted?

Lefosa: The area planted was 206.031 hectares (ha), which is an 18.6 percent increase from last season’s 173.759 hectares.

LT: And what was the yield for each cereal per hectare?

Lefosa: Firstly, you have to understand that yield per hectare is considered high when it is in the range of 1.00 metric tonnes/ha (a tonne equals 1 000 kilogrammes); the average is 0.50 mt/ha and poor is below the average.
In this year’s case, the estimated overall yield per hectare for maize is 0.59 mt, sorghum is 0.21 mt and wheat is at 0.88 mt.

LT: But again these are just forecasts… when are you going to have the actual yield data?

Lefosa: We are going to conduct the actual crop-production survey after the harvesting period and that would be after the winter season.
We expect to release the results in late October. You have to understand that the critical results that can enable various stakeholders to undertake early planning are those we are currently projecting while the October findings would be used to validate our database for accuracy in our future comparisons.

LT: Let’s talk about the production of the staple food, maize. How many tonnes are you projecting for the current harvest?

Lefosa: Like I mentioned earlier on, there was an increase in the overall area planted this year.
In terms of maize, the total area planted was 145.665 hectares, an increase of 27.2 percent compared to 114.543 hectares the previous season.
Countrywide, we are expecting 85.774 tonnes of maize, a decrease by 0.6 percent from 86.304 last season. Yield per hectare decreased by 28.0 percent to 0.59 tonnes per hectare from 0.82 tonnes per hectare.
Berea recorded the highest yield of 1.01 tonnes per hectare, followed by Maseru with 0.92 tonnes.
The lowest yield, 0.18 tonnes was observed in Mafeteng. We are expecting high production in the Berea district at 19.304 tonnes followed by Maseru with 18.036 and very low production in Qacha’s Nek with 571 tonnes.

LT: How much maize does the country need to sustain itself?

Lefosa: We require 246 tonnes and we are projecting a deficit of 135 tonnes.
We are aware that millers had initially planned to import about 258 tonnes, which we expect to go down because the projected deficit is low.

LT: So what does this projection mean? We are talking about production by farming households and from your survey, were you able to tell which areas we are going to be most vulnerable?

Lefosa: During our survey, we noticed that unlike other years, on aggregate, the majority of farming households will have enough maize to sustain themselves until the next harvest.
However, a significant number of households will not have any surplus to feed the nation, which means we are still going to heavily rely on imports for the feeding of non-farming households.

LT: What are your maize price projections for the next 12 months?
Lefosa: I don’t see the country in a desperate situation like in the previous years and this is mainly because the majority of farming households, which are a major concern if there is maize crop-failure, have enough this year.
So I am not seeing maize prices skyrocketing and many working households will be able to afford maize-meal.
I am also looking at the possibility that the deficit might attract some food aid and if that happens, it would mean a significant reduction on maize imports.

LT: What has been the maize production trend since 2009/2010?

Lefosa: This year, we are expecting a 0.6 percent decline in maize-production compared to the 2012/2013 season.
Over the years, we have also been noticing a declining trend and can note the 42.8 percent decline from 2009/2010 to 2010/2011 and a further decrease by 42.1 percent in the following season.
However, there was a 103.2 percent increase from 2011/2012 to 2012 to 2013.

LT: Let’s talk about sorghum-production, which is mainly encouraged in drought-prone districts such as Mohale’s Hoek and Mafeteng and also when expecting drought conditions in other parts of the country. We did not have drought this time around. How did sorghum perform?

Lefosa: Sorghum performed poorly. We had a bad start to the planting period because the rains came late in most parts of the country.
However, as the season progressed, we experienced heavy falls between January and March.
This affected sorghum, which does not do well in very wet conditions.
We are expecting a very low yield of 5.170 tonnes, a huge decrease of 74.6 percent compared to the 20.405 tonnes in the previous season.
We are expecting the highest yield of 1.234 tonnes from Berea district.

LT: Has the trend been on the decline side for sorghum as well?

Lefosa: Production has been largely declining although we experienced an increase of 336.7 percent in the 2012/2013 season.

LT: And lastly wheat, what can we expect?

Lefosa: Another decline unfortunately. Countrywide, we are expecting a harvest of 12.582 tonnes, down from 13.385 tonnes in the 2012/2013 season.
We expect Mokhotlong to have the highest production of 7.078 tonnes; 3 tonnes in Berea and no production in the Mafeteng District.

LT: You have mentioned that generally, cereal-production last year was higher than this year. How much maize do we have in the national storage facilities and what is the situation in terms of the food available, utilisation and expected consumption?

Lefosa: We normally define total utilisation as the quantity of cereals used by households inclusive of the stock available in a given marketing year.
Utilisation therefore could include, sales and that portion of cereals given to relatives, neighbors and friends and outgoing exchange with other commodities (the barter system) as well as for animal feed and seed.
For the farming households only, the 2013/2014 agricultural year, the availability of maize is estimated at 102.036 tonnes, while in 2012/2013, it was 35.625 we expect that utilisation will be around 20.257 tonnes, and the portion of maize that will be consumed by these farming households as food is estimated to be 81.779 tonnes, leaving a surplus of 5.568 tonnes and remember, this is at farming households level.
However, nationally, the available maize is 110.764 tonnes, while the expected consumption is 246.358 tonnes, implying a short fall of 135.594 tonnes.
However, the shortfall will be covered by the planned imports of 258.033 tonnes and if all goes according to plan, there would not be any shortage of maize.

LT: You mentioned earlier on that late planting and above-normal rains affected production this last season. How can various stakeholders help improve productivity?

Lefosa: I think in order for the sector to improve, there is need to tackle other issues such as the land tenure system.
It makes no sense for people to own large pieces of arable land but lack the resources to effectively and fully utilise the land.
While owners can lease their land, the fact that you don’t own it limits innovative practices by the tenants.
For instance, they cannot use that land as collateral if they want additional support from financiers and they can also not develop irrigation systems.
While utilising all land is important, we also need to look at how best to roll-out soil-improvement programmes.
In the 2011/2012 season, the area planted increased by 20.4 percent and further increased by 18.6 percent in 2012/2013 and the previous season.
You can see while there is an increase in land-use, we are not yet there in terms of yield per hectare.
Among other factors, the quality of soil and seed can be blamed for the low yield per hectare.
Soil quality, for instance, is one area many farmers have to seriously work on.
On the other hand, because we are responsible for providing data to ensure the government improves its operations and ensure a food-secure nation, I feel it is also important to make sure that support meant for vulnerable households does benefit the right people.
This can help reduce the burden on the government, which can even provide more support to poor households if the numbers of beneficiaries are not exaggerated.

LT: Why do you think our farmers are in perennial need of subsidised inputs? Are they not farming to make a profit?

Lefosa: From the surveys we have conducted over the years, there are a number of challenges.
Firstly, we have not been able to support and sustain commercial agriculture.
The majority of our farmers are still practicing subsistence farming.
While I can say there has not been significant transition or development by a sizeable number of farmers from subsistence to commercial, we still have to work on our systems to ensure agriculture becomes one of the financially attractive enterprises.
By making it easy for farmers to store their maize, have the produce collected hassle-free and taken to the markets and have a say in the pricing of their produce, we can encourage many farmers to go commercial.
We have noticed a disturbing trend during our surveys, where a lot of maize goes to waste because farmers lack proper storage facilities. This is heartbreaking.
So I can say the majority of our crop farmers today are not focusing on commercialisation because there is nothing attracting them to develop themselves towards that route.
We need to make our systems right and help serious subsistence farmers to graduate to commercial agriculture so that they can farm to make a profit and not to become poorer.
Agriculture and its diversity can be our cash-cow and the biggest employer in this country.

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