FAO rural markets offer hope to farmers in drought-stricken Lesotho
Mosala, Lesotho - Julius Ncheche has seen many things in his 68 years, but he can’t remember such a terrible drought as the one which blighted Lesotho’s most recent harvest.
The drought was so severe that his government declared a state of emergency in July following a United Nations survey that estimated that 30% of the country’s people would need humanitarian assistance.
With no time to waste, and in effort to stave off another disastrous harvest, FAO jumped into action, appealing to donors for funds and immediately planning a series of agricultural input trade fairs – also known as seed fairs - to be held in all ten districts of Lesotho.
US$ 3.5 million was quickly received –from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission (ECHO) and the Government of Norway.
Vouchers provided to farmers at the fairs allow them acquire much-needed replacement seed for replanting their lands, allowing them to recuperate food and income lost to the drought.
“FAO has a mandate to respond to agricultural emergencies. In this case drought was the trigger,” explains Farayi Zimudzi, FAO’s Emergency Coordinator for Lesotho.
FAO has been working closely with Lesotho's Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in implementing fairs in all 10 districts of the country. To start with 200 government officials have been trained to stage the fairs. FAO and the government officials organized fairs in seven districts, while CRS - pioneers of the input trade fair concept in Africa - organized fairs in the remaining three districts.
Through the trade fairs, which end in mid-October, ten percent of all households in Lesotho will have accessed enough agricultural inputs – including 385 tonnes of seed - to prepare and plant 17,500 hectares of land. An estimated 5,600 tonnes of maize, sorghum, beans and other crops are expected to be produced from this assistance.
Seeds of hope
Julius, a widower living with his children, is just one of 35,000 farmers in Lesotho identified to attend the trade fairs. Many are elderly, like him. Others are single mothers or from households caring for ill family members or large numbers of children. All suffered from last year’s drought.
At the Mosala fair, Julius receives an envelope of vouchers worth Maluti 500 (about US$ 73). The vouchers are divided into small denominations and two colors – a total of Maluti 320 for seeds and fertilizer and Maluti 180 for purchasing tools or tillage services.
Vouchers in hand, Julius makes a beeline for a pre-selected dealer and spent his first Maluti 80 on a bag of sorghum. That was the easy purchase; the rest were much more painstaking. It took him more than an hour to select tomato, potato, pinto bean and spinach seeds, and to buy a sickle. The vouchers may be free, but the decisions are not taken lightly.
“We presume that maize is the preferred crop,” says Adam Weimer, CRS Lesotho’s Food Security Programme Manager. “But when given a choice and when there is access, farmers buy other things too. Potatoes, for instance, are popular.”
The Maluti 500 is calculated to buy enough inputs to cover a half-hectare plot. “This represents a major contribution to the ability of households to produce enough crops to feed themselves for the better part of a year, if not a full year,” said Zimudzi.
The average farmer in Lesotho grows 30% of their household food requirements and buys the other 70%. Most rely on remittances from family members, selling piece labor, or government labor programs. According to Zimudzi, “If you can tip that ratio around to buying 30% and growing 70% you can go a long way toward achieving food security in the country.”
An added benefit to the input trade fairs is that they give a much-needed boost to local economies. “When you stay in Maseru,” said Thabiso Lebese, a trader at a fair in Maputsoe, “you sell 1-2 spades a week. Here, I’ve sold ten already today and ten digging forks. And the item that has sold the best today has been watering cans.”
The fairs also offer an incentive for local farmers to produce surplus seeds and other inputs, as they can be guaranteed a sizeable market. At the Mosala fair alone, the 420 customers spent vouchers totaling Maloti 90,000 (US$ 13,200).
The gathering of large numbers of people likewise are an opportune time to spread informative messages about HIV and AIDS awareness, conservation farming methods, and the popular circular, rock-walled kitchen gardens called “keyhole gardens.”
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) will follow up the input trade fairs by providing food assistance to the same vulnerable farmers.
Zimudzi explains that FAO’s fairs and WFP’s food assistance complement each other. “They are both important, so that people don’t have to make the choice: ‘Do I eat this seed or plant it?’”.
19 October 2007
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