A neighbour indeed!
• Lesotho- SA co-operate to aver hunger
When Lesotho declared a food crisis in 2012, the South African government immediately pledged support worth $20 million (M180 million). However, little had government known this decision would not only bring hope to food-insecure households in Lesotho but also change the lives of struggling smallholder farmers in South Africa. Following last week’s delivery of 700 metric-tonnes of maize-meal—the last consignment in the food-assistance programme which began in 2013—South Africa’s High Commissioner to Lesotho, Reverend Harris Mbulelo Majeke, told the Lesotho Times (LT) how this initiative had been such an eye-opener to his government.
LT: What prompted South Africa to respond so swiftly when Lesotho appealed to the international community for assistance in the face of a severe food shortage?
Rev Majeke: The geographical position of Lesotho and South Africa places this country high on the development agenda of South Africa. Clearly, the principles of good neighbourliness dictate that you cannot be content when your neighbour is in need; you are bound to help. As good neighbours, South Africa answered the call for help, and was happy to do so. South Africa is serious about helping Lesotho reduce poverty. Although Lesotho is a sovereign state, the two countries are one people in terms of our shared history, culture, relations and many other aspects. The suffering of Lesotho citizens directly affects the people of South Africa.
LT: But what immediately came to your mind when you heard about the food crisis?
Rev Majeke: Hunger is the Number One enemy to human development, social wellbeing and peace. When I heard there was a food crisis here, I was deeply concerned about what could happen if help was not immediately forthcoming. I thought of women and children because I know they hold the future of this country. I also imagined the plight of food-insecure people living with HIV. Human suffering resulting from the food crisis is what prompted the South African High Commission and the Government of South Africa to reach out to Lesotho.
LT: When help finally came, what was the role of the High Commission and what has been the immediate impact of the support?
Rev Majeke: Our role has been chiefly to monitor progress and ensure the smooth-running of the project. Given that responsibility, we have visited several schools and clinics, together with officials from the Ministry of Education and Training and United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). We saw the need and challenges faced by some food-insecure communities in some parts of Lesotho, and in particular, districts such as Mafeteng, Thaba-Tseka and Mohale’s Hoek. If there had not been immediate intervention, the conditions of some nursing mothers and children in such districts would have been worse. This contribution has helped alleviate some of the food and nutrition challenges these communities were facing. It is good to know that following a consistent supply of food to schools, many children look forward to attending classes because they will learn and also have nutritious food to eat. At least 250,000 pre and primary school children and 13,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, have benefitted from this initiative. For me, that is a noble act of saving lives and giving hope, especially to orphans and other vulnerable children.
LT: The last maize-meal consignment of 700 tonnes was delivered to the Food Management Unit in Maseru. Are you happy or is your government satisfied with the way the project was managed since it started in 2013?
Rev Majeke: The mission has been closely monitoring the progress of the project since 2013. Indeed, there is nothing we can point out and say this or that was not properly managed. I believe a good decision was made to choose WFP to run the project. After all, WFP has been in this business for many years, and that says a lot about their experience and technical expertise. From what we are seeing, we are satisfied by the successful management of the project. The project is ending in July this year and we are happy that the Government of Lesotho has shown commitment to continue supporting the school-feeding programme, which is the larger area we are supporting. We are also happy to have been part of such a noble initiative that sought to save lives, improve the wellbeing of Basotho and make sure that both women and children, despite the food crisis, continued having nutritious food at the right time. This project has also strengthened our partnership with WFP, which managed the project together with the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.
LT: What would you say made this mission different from other relief projects that the Government of South Africa has been involved in?
Rev Majeke: : The fact that the Government of South Africa also decided to involve smallholder farmers who were struggling for markets in South Africa. The project created training opportunities for our smallholder-farmers on issues of post-harvest handling and storage, food safety and quality control. This project thrived on creating new partnerships within the value-chain. It managed to connect smallholder-farmers with the expertise they needed to become successful in agribusiness and the market. We also feel targeting beneficiaries was well thought-out because in a food crisis, it is mainly women and children who suffer the most.
LT: So the project’s objective was also aimed at improving the agricultural production of smallholder-farmers in South Africa?
Rev Majeke: The Government of South Africa and WFP agreed that 40 percent of the cereals needed to support Lesotho would be purchased from the smallholder-farmers. To-date, WFP has purchased more than 4,300 metric-tonnes of maize and sugar beans, all worth M21 million, from the smallholder-farmers. We understand that this was the first time that WFP bought commodities for its regional operations from smallholder-farmers in South Africa. WFP also bought some 16,000 metric-tonnes of commodities from commercial traders in South Africa. In actual fact, this was a brilliant idea since most of the funding pledged was not necessarily a transfer of money from South Africa to Lesotho – it was not giving money to help alleviate a food crisis and then walk away. This was money that was also spent on struggling smallholder-farmers in South Africa, who had the responsibility to produce food for our neighbours.
LT: Based on the diverse scope of this initiative, what lessons can South Africa share with Lesotho?
Rev Majeke: The project managed to spread benefits and resources to a wider and different groups of stakeholders. On the South African side, we managed to develop our smallholder-farmers who needed support to grow and access competitive markets. We also noticed that smallholder-farmers had a lot of potential and that with support throughout the production process, they can become an important component of the economy and create employment. With adequate support, they managed to produce good quality cereals. This made us realise that we should also consider smallholder-farmers in our own school-feeding programme in South Africa and other national programmes. By helping our neighbour, we also helped ourselves because we then realised our farmers’ potential. The lessons are especially important for Lesotho because the government is in the process of introducing local purchase of food for school-feeding. But also of importance was our realisation that it takes a great deal of time to put everything together, bring all stakeholders together, build the capacity of farmers and create effective value-chains.
LT: If it was up to you as the High Commissioner, what would be the next area of cooperation between Lesotho and South Africa?
Rev Majeke: What immediately comes to my mind is the need to explore ways to build the capacity of farmers in Lesotho. I believe agriculture should be the bedrock of African economies because our problem is hunger which makes us poorer and creates a series of other socio-economic and political challenges. The area of collaboration would be supporting farmers to produce more, improve the quality of their produce, ensure they produce consistently, are reliable suppliers and link them to competitive markets. We should aim to support and develop smallholder-farmers who can finance their own farming activities. With such empowerment comes economic independence and becoming well-positioned to negotiate good prices. We should also closely collaborate with Lesotho in areas of building communities’ resilience to weather-related disasters in order to improve food-security. When South Africa is hungry, for instance, that affects Lesotho as well because we depend on one another in many areas. It should also be noted that given the limited arable land in Lesotho, the country cannot prosper in isolation. However, on a positive note, Lesotho is blessed with abundant water and beautiful mountains. With proper planning, these attributes can be optimally utilised for better and diverse food production.
LT: What do you see as the biggest threat to agricultural development in southern Africa?
Rev Majeke: Extreme climatic conditions remain a big threat to agriculture on our continent. Over the years, we have seen many droughts and just recently, floods in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. That should worry every serious government in the region. It is only through building communities’ resilience to weather-shocks and collectively working towards mitigating the effects of climate-change that we can have a way out of food and nutrition insecurity and poverty in southern Africa. We can introduce many trainings and come up with high-sounding strategies and visions, but if we are not smart enough to invest in resilience programmes, many people will still regress deeper into hunger and continue to pass-on the poverty to future generations. That is to say we have to act, and act fast. If, for example, we rely only on rain to produce food, what then happens to the crop if it does not rain or if there is too much rain?
LT: Your explanation clearly shows that South Africa and Lesotho need each other. What then can help improve cooperation between the two countries?
Rev Majeke: Lesotho and South Africa should come up with an Integrated Economic Development Strategy to plan together in areas of economic development. Lesotho has a lot to contribute, economically because of its rich water resources, its huge potential in the production of wool, mohair, skins and hides from the goats and sheep bred throughout the country.
Through the Integrated strategy, for example, some South African car-manufacturing companies can start making seats in Lesotho using local hides and wool. There are many other examples like how South Africa can tap into Lesotho’s promising horticultural sector and also buy the country’s beautiful and abundant sandstone to construct houses in our country.– Lesotho Times